George Washington: The Wonder of the Age- by John Rhodehamel


My third review of George Washington biographies is George Washington: The Wonder of the Age.  I chose it based on the fact it’s the most recently published biography available on America’s first chief executive.  I purchased the book prior to the posted release date of late February from Amazon.com.

The author John Rhodehamel, an established historian, previously worked as an archivist at Mount Vernon and curator of historical manuscripts at the Huntington Library.  He concentrates this text on George Washington depicting events surrounding his life.  Rhodehamel’s experience at Mount Vernon lends him much credibility in creating a profile on George Washington.

The book is consistent with His Excellency: George Washington (my review) by Joseph Ellis, at least in length, coming in at 353 pages.  The book is dispersed over twelve chapters, the longest section on Washington the General, followed by reviews of his presidential terms.  A drawback to the book- chapters border on the extended side- typically a minimum of 20 pages.  There are few natural breaks in the chapters for the reader to take a pause during reading.

The author incorporates a great deal of redundant information the other two books I reviewed on Washington already encompassed.  Rhodehamel presents a tranquil, easy-to-read writing style making the words flow smoothly on the pages.  The Wonder of the Age is focused on Washington’s professional accomplishments on the frontier, the Revolutionary War, and politics.  Rhodehamel takes an approach to storytelling along the lines of Joseph Ellis in His Excellency (review here) which is much different than the academic tone of Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life (review here).  His prose weaves a good story about Washington, but I miss the aspect of Washington as family man.

One interesting aspect of Rhodehamel’s biography is a brief comparison between Washington in the French and Indian War versus his time as Commander-in-Chief of the Revolutionary army.  I enjoyed the contrast and agree that Washington matured both as a man and a leader in the time elapsed between the conflicts.  The author lists multiple mistakes that Washington made in the earlier war that he did not repeat later.  Rhodehamel shows the evolution of Washington from a young and impetuous leader to a respected founding father.

A noticeable absence in The Wonder of an Age is that of Martha Washington.  The author focuses primarily on George, but in minimizing his wife’s role, the overall picture of the man is diminished.  A quick scan of the index shows few mentions of her in the book.  Going further- Rhodehamel provides sparse details of the relationship between Washington and his wife, overbearing mother and step children.  I feel that to provide an accurate picture of Washington- his family needs to be brought up in the book.  I understand if Rhodehamel wanted to focus solely on the General, but little detail about his home life ranks this book behind the other two I have reviewed in terms of painting a comprehensive portrait of him.

Rhodehamel pays little attention to the possible infatuation between Washington and Sally Fairfax.  The author sums up the entire intrigue by labeling the romance as “unimportant.”    I agree, whether, Washington had a young man’s crush on Sally Fairfax or not, it does not minimize his accomplishments as a man.  I believe however, that in not addressing the romance, the biography is slightly diminished.  Rhodehamel’s reason for not including much personal information lies in his belief that other authors look too hard to make Washington more personable.

George Washington: The Wonder of the Age is a good book, but not spectacular.  Rhodehamel is without question, knowledgeable about George Washington.  He gives a thorough account of Washington’s presidential years.  I appreciate the specific details provided on Washington’s presidential years.  A reader may utilize the facts in the chapters on Washington’s presidency to determine how they feel about his overall performance.  If a reader desires a recently written, condensed, one volume book focused entirely on Washington, this may be a good selection.  However- I do think my previously reviewed books are better choices for the reader desiring a more definitive account of the entirety of Washington’s life.

Overall- 3.5 stars.

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