George Washington was the indispensable Founding Father. He was unanimously chosen four straight times to lead: as commander in chief of the Continental Army; as president of the Constitutional Convention; and for two consecutive terms as president of the United States. Even in his retirement, the Senate unanimously confirmed him as head of the new Army. All of this was accomplished as he set precedents and dealt with opposition from Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and others. Now the brilliant biographer Ron Chernow, author of the National Book Award-winning The House of Morgan, demonstrates in his magnificently written, richly detailed and always compelling Washington: A Life just how and why his subject attained such an exalted status. Chernow draws on the 60 volumes of Washington’s letters and diaries as well as letters written to him, state papers from the period and the latest Washington scholarship. We now know more about him than his family, friends and other contemporaries did.

From an early age, Washington was ambitious. Although he was not born into a family of the upper gentry and did not attend college, he was not exactly a self-made man. Conscientious and self-educated in many ways, it was the untimely deaths of his father and half-brother and his marriage to Martha Custis that thrust him into the top tier of Virginia’s plantation society. Chernow’s narrative traces his evolution from a brave soldier on the frontier with a consuming desire for fame, money and status to a tough-minded businessman and a hard-driving slave owner, and then into a soldier and statesman with a mastery of political skills.

Chernow’s nuanced portrait shows that Washington generally was a realist and problem solver as well as a shrewd and subtle reader of other people. He certainly made errors of judgment, particularly during the war, and without extraordinary help from France, American history might have turned out differently. But Washington had a commitment to a greater vision than many others of what the United States could become.

No other part of Washington’s life concerned him so much as being an owner of many slaves. Chernow devotes much space to his long ambivalence between abolitionism and his economic well-being based on slavery. Despite the Washingtons’ strong personal positive feelings about individual slaves, any doubts Washington had about slavery were expressed only in private letters, never publicly. He was reluctant to break up slaves’ families, yet he did not feel the same way when it came to selling slaves. Of course, by freeing his slaves in his will, Washington took a step all other slave-owning Founders failed to take.

This magisterial volume covers the father of our country in all aspects, from his difficult relationship with his mother to his inability to live frugally, his obsession with Mount Vernon, his exemplary leadership in war and peace, and much more. Chernow’s latest accomplishment is historical biography at its best.

 

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