Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

Washington: A Life is a Pulitzer Prize winning biography of a man revered as the Father of the United States.  The book, written by noted author Ron Chernow, details the life of George Washington.  Ron Chernow, was born on March 3, 1949 in Brooklyn, New York to Israel and Ruth Chernow.  He graduated from Yale College (summa cum laude) later obtaining a Masters Degree at Cambridge.  The author, first published in 1990 with The House of Morgan, has penned seven novels, primarily biographies about famous financial titans and politicians.  Recently, his first political biography, Alexander Hamilton, has become a popular Broadway play.  Washington: A Life published in 2010, is his most recent novel, which I selected to read first on my journey through biographies of our American presidents.  I chose it for two reasons- the first is rather simple- I owned the book.  The second is because I was looking for a sketch of Washington’s life with a large amount of detail, yet limited to a single volume.

Washington: A Life is divided into six diverse sections spanning 904 pages.  Chernow initiates the novel with the genealogical history of Washington’s family.  The book is fast paced depicting Washington as an ambitious young man striving to further himself in Virginian society.  Chernow details Washington’s early life on the frontier as both a surveyor and participant in the French and Indian War.  The first part of the book finishes with a radicalized Washington upset over the denial of a regular army commission and forced to purchase luxury goods from across the ocean.

The longest segment relays the story of General George Washington during the American Revolution.  The novelist paints a realistic portrait of a man rising from commanding a small military unit to fighting the greatest military power on earth.  Chernow describes not a master technician, but a strong man keeping a ragtag group of soldiers fighting by sheer force of will.

The revolutionary war complete, Chernow describes Washington’s life between the end of the war and the formation of the new American Republic.  He takes the reader to Mount Vernon and discusses Washington’s philosophical evolution on slavery, financial struggles, and the realization that all he fought for in the revolution would be lost with a weak central government.

The author does an exemplary job relating the difficulties George Washington had as the first president of the United States.  Washington knew his every move would be scrutinized for eternity and acted as such during eight years in charge of the fledgling nation.  Chernow provides detail on other politicians during the time period to include Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, and Madison.  Much insight is gained on the rough and tumble early 18th century politics.  Chernow makes it clear that strong words among politicians did not being during the 2016 election, but existed even in the days of our founding fathers.

The book closes with an exhausted Washington heading back to Mount Vernon.  The land rich, cash poor Washington struggles in his final years in an attempt to be a profitable farmer.  The reader gets an emotional tour of George’s final days before he dies on his beloved plantation.

I enjoyed Washington: A Life and believe it is an essential piece of reading on our first president.  Chernow does an outstanding job of showing Washington’s evolution on slavery- resulting in the release of his own slaves.  The impersonal face on the one-dollar bill comes alive as a man who enjoyed dancing, was brave and heroic, and maintained unwavering integrity.  Chernow is able to integrate Washington’s own words and other first person accounts to reveal the personality of George Washington.

The author gives a complete description of George Washington’s life.  The details in the book are comprehensive drawn on Washington’s own notes and multiple first person letters lending the book an authoritative viewpoint on the first president.  The revolutionary war period does not get bogged down in excruciating tactical detail, but provides an engaging high level view of battles fought by the colonial army.

One nagging issue I have about the book was the section on his presidential years.  There is plenty of detail on the political battles he fought, but not as much detail on his major political accomplishments.  I would have enjoyed more specificity on the actions Washington took as president with less on the attempts to besmirch his reputation by others.

I highly recommend this book as a definitive account of George Washington.  The length of the book is not daunting to an average reader who wants to learn about Washington without reading the four volume masterpiece written by James Flexner.  The book is detailed enough to bring out the strengths and weaknesses of Washington without overwhelming a reader.

Rating: 5 stars


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