Washington: A Life is a 2010 biography of George Washington, the first President of the United States, written by American historian and biographer Ron Chernow. The book is a "one-volume, cradle-to-grave narrative" that attempts to provide a fresh portrait of Washington as "real, credible, and charismatic in the same way he was perceived by his contemporaries".
Chernow, a former business journalist, was inspired to write the book while researching another biography on Washington's long-time aide Alexander Hamilton. Washington: A Life took six years to complete and makes extensive use of archival evidence. The book was released to wide acclaim from critics, several of whom called it the best biography of Washington ever written. In 2011, the book won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography, as well as the New-York Historical Society's American History Book Prize.
Ronald Chernow (born March 3, 1949) is an American writer, journalist, historian, and biographer. He has written bestselling and award-winning biographies of historical figures from the world of business, finance, and American politics.
He won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Biography and the 2011 American History Book Prize for his 2010 book Washington: A Life. He is also the recipient of the National Book Award for Nonfiction for his1990 book The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance. His biographies of Alexander Hamilton and John D. Rockefeller (1998) were both nominated for National Book Critics Circle Awards, while the former served as the inspiration for the Hamilton musical, for which Chernow worked as a historical consultant. Another book, The Warburgs: The Twentieth-Century Odyssey of a Remarkable Jewish Family, was honored with the 1993 George S. Eccles Prize for Excellence in Economic Writing. As a freelance journalist, he has written over sixty articles in national publications.
Honors and awards
National Book Award for Nonfiction for The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance (winner) 1990
George S. Eccles Prize for Excellence in Economic Writing for The Warburgs: The Twentieth-Century Odyssey of a Remarkable Jewish Family (winner) 1993
National Book Critics Circle Award for Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (nominated) 1998
George Washington Book Prize for Alexander Hamilton (winner) 2004
National Book Critics Circle Award for Alexander Hamilton (nominated) 2004
Pulitzer Prize for Biography for Washington: A Life (winner) 2011
American History Book Prize for Washington: A Life (winner) 2011
BIO Award from Biographers International Organization for advancing the art and craft of biography.2013
National Humanities Medal 2015
2016: Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site Advancing American Democracy (winner)
Gold Medal Honoree from the National Institute of Social Science 2017 .
Gilbert Stuart's 1796 portrait of Washington
The prelude of Washington: A Life draws a parallel between Gilbert Stuart's portraits of George Washington and Chernow's attempts to give a fresh portrait of his character in a biography.Stuart, Chernow argues, was not deceived by Washington's "aura of cool command", but painted him as "a sensitive, complex figure, full of pent-up passion";Chernow states his intention to do the same, presenting Washington as "real, credible, and charismatic in the same way he was perceived by his contemporaries".
Chernow presents Washington as "a man capable of constant self-improvement", rising from a provincial childhood to the presidency of the United States. Beginning with his boyhood, the biography discusses the major events of Washington's life in largely chronological order: his early life and service in the British Army during the French and Indian War; his career as a planter and his growing dissatisfaction with British rule of the American colonies; his service in the Continental Congress and as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in the American Revolution; his resignation and brief retirement following the revolution's successful conclusion; his return to public life at the Constitutional Convention; his two terms as the first president of the United States, in which he set a number of important precedents for the office; and the final years of his life. Chernow describes Washington's accomplishments as president as "simply breathtaking":
He had restored American credit and assumed state debt; created a bank, a mint, a coast guard, a customs service, and a diplomatic corps; introduced the first accounting, tax, and budgetary procedures; maintained peace at home and abroad; inaugurated a navy, bolstered the army, and shored up coastal defenses and infrastructure; proved that the country could regulate commerce and negotiate binding treaties; protected frontier settlers, subdued Indian uprisings, and established law and order amid rebellion, scrupulously adhering all the while to the letter of the Constitution ... Most of all he had shown a disbelieving world that republican government could prosper without being spineless or disorderly or reverting to authoritarian rule.
Several chapters also detail Washington's complex feelings about slavery, an institution on which he relied but which he also despised; he left provisions for his slaves to be freed after his death, the only slave-owning founding father to do so. The personal aspects of Washington's life covered by Chernow include the design, creation, and management of Mount Vernon; his leisure activities and hobbies; his difficult relationship with his mother; his personal relationship with the married Sally Cary Fairfax, with whom Washington fell in love just before his marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis; and his relationships with his adopted children, stepchildren, and grandchildren. Chernow also describes the relationships between the childless Washington and a succession of "surrogate sons" such as Alexander Hamilton, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Tobias Lear.
By Andrew Cayton
George Washington’s corpse was scarcely a month in its grave when an enterprising minister from Maryland named Mason Locke Weems made a pitch to a Philadelphia publisher. “I’ve got something to whisper in your lug,” Weems wrote in January 1800. “Washington, you know is gone! Millions are gaping to read something about him. . . . My plan! I give his history, sufficiently minute” and “go on to show that his unparalleled rise & elevation were due to his Great Virtues.” Weems was on to something. His sentimental and often fictional biography became a best seller, the first in a seemingly endless stream of studies of the man who led the Continental Army to victory in the American War for Independence and who as the first president of the United States did more than anyone else to establish the legitimacy of a national government merely outlined in the Constitution of 1787. Today, books about Washington continue to appear at such an astonishing rate that the publication of Ron Chernow’s prompts the inevitable question: Why another one?
An obvious answer is that Chernow is no ordinary writer. Like his popular biographies of John D. Rockefeller and Alexander Hamilton, his “Washington” while long, is vivid and well paced. If Chernow’s sense of historical context is sometimes superficial, his understanding of psychology is acute and his portraits of individuals memorable. Most readers will finish this book feeling as if they have actually spent time with human beings. Given Chernow’s considerable literary talent and the continued hunger of some Americans for a steady diet of tales of Washington and his exploits, what publisher could resist the prospect of adding “Washington: A Life” to its list?
A more complicated answer lies in considering why we still long for news of Washington. To be sure, his life reflected, if it didn’t epitomize, the once unimaginable transformation of several British colonies into an imperial Republic whose dominion extended to the Mississippi River. But Chernow and, I suspect, most of his readers are less interested in how the United States became the United States than in how George Washington became George Washington. Accepting the inevitability of our nation, they remain perplexed by the pre-eminence of this man. Chernow is far subtler and far more sophisticated than Weems. Yet there is a familiar ring to his desire to “elucidate the secrets” of Washington’s “uncanny ability to lead a nation” by detailing his acquisition of such “exemplary virtues” as “unerring judgment, sterling character, rectitude, steadfast patriotism, unflagging sense of duty and civic-mindedness.” What, we still wonder, was the secret of his success?
Contemporaries, even those rivals who deeply resented him, observed that Washington seemed to be blessed by Divine Providence — or just plain luck. How else to explain the many bullets that whizzed around but never into his body? Or his emergence from a string of catastrophic military disasters in the French and Indian War and the War for Independence with a reputation enhanced rather than ruined? Over the past two centuries, scholars have detailed more prosaic explanations of Washington’s “unparalleled rise & elevation,” including his acquisition of thousands of acres through fortuitous inheritance and relentless speculation; his marriage to the wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis; his connection with members of the powerful Fairfax family, who became important early patrons; his struggle to master his body and his passions within the language and conventions of 18th-century Anglo-American republicanism; and most recently, his creative conflation of his personal ambition with the cause of the Republic. Chernow acknowledges all these interpretations of Washington’s life. But because he tends to slide into the biographer’s quicksand of identifying too closely with his subject, his particular contribution is to argue for the critical role Washington himself played in becoming George Washington.
Few human beings have ever lived a life more self-consciously devoted to proving he merited his fame. In retrospect, Washington seems profoundly insecure. Given to dark moods and angry outbursts, especially at those who questioned his intentions, he compensated by studying rules of etiquette, mimicking successful older men, cultivating the loyalty of younger men and displaying an extraordinary sensitivity to what others thought of him. Nothing was more likely to provoke his legendary rage than accusations that he was motivated by a base motive.
Like many of his peers, he made a great show of resisting public office, if only to demonstrate the absence of ambition. Washington fretted at length about the performance he would give from the balcony of Federal Hall in Lower Manhattan when he became president on April 30, 1789. What should he wear? How should he behave? Knowing that “the first of everything in our situation will serve to establish a precedent,” he wanted to avoid acting like a king while respecting the dignity of his office and the Republic it represented. Months earlier, he had decided he ought to say something, thereby inventing the presidential Inaugural Address. In an early draft, of which only fragments survive, Washington, Chernow writes, “spent a ridiculous amount of time defending his decision to become president, as if he stood accused of some heinous crime.” This prickliness rarely surfaced in public. Indeed, he tirelessly cultivated an impassive demeanor that suited to perfection his preferred role as a remote, stoic figure towering above the sordid business of ordinary politics.
But of course George Washington was anything but an uninterested observer. He didn’t just learn from events; he shaped them to his own purposes. Throughout his career he wanted the gentlemen of Virginia and then the United States to master the landscape and peoples of North America as well as their bodies and emotions. Where Thomas Jefferson spent much of his life defying power, Washington imagined using power to improve transportation, encourage education, develop commerce, establish federal authority and unite the diverse regions of the sprawling Republic into an imposing whole that transcended the sum of its parts. “The name of AMERICAN,” he said, must override any local attachments.
To command respect and inspire emulation throughout the world, the United States had to balance liberty with order. This breathtaking imperial vision informed virtually everything Washington did. When he decided to provide for the freedom of most of his enslaved Africans upon the death of Martha Washington, he acted in good measure out of a conviction that “nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union, by consolidating it in a common bond of principle.”
Washington was concerned with his reputation and that of the nation he helped to found because he wisely understood that he could improve both through close attention to the expectations of others. But we are mistaken if we think he offered himself as a democratic example of how an ordinary person could succeed. The Washington who fashioned his public image did not believe he created the core of his character. To the contrary, his rise, he thought, served as proof that he was an extraordinary man who had always possessed exemplary talent and integrity. If he fretted about what posterity would think of him, it was probably because he doubted our willingness to acknowledge his greatness. On that score, at least, he needn’t have worried.
Illustrated. 904 pp. The Penguin Press. $40
Andrew Cayton teaches history at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
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