Washington: A Life

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Penguin, Oct 5, 2010 - Biography & Autobiography - 928 pages
6 Reviews

A gripping portrait of the first president of the United States from the author of Alexander Hamilton, the New York Times bestselling biography that inspired the musical.

Celebrated biographer Ron Chernow provides a richly nuanced portrait of the father of our nation and the first president of the United States. With a breadth and depth matched by no other one volume biography of George Washington, this crisply paced narrative carries the reader through his adventurous early years, his heroic exploits with the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, his presiding over the Constitutional Convention, and his magnificent performance as America's first president. In this groundbreaking work, based on massive research, Chernow shatters forever the stereotype of George Washington as a stolid, unemotional figure and brings to vivid life a dashing, passionate man of fiery opinions and many moods.

Winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Biography

Ron Chernow's new biography, Grant, will be published by Penguin Press in October 2017. 

“Truly magnificent… [a] well-researched, well-written and absolutely definitive biography” 
–Andrew Roberts, The Wall Street Journal

“Superb… the best, most comprehensive, and most balanced single-volume biography of Washington ever written.” 
–Gordon S. Wood, The New York Review of Books

“A truly gripping biography of George Washington... I can’t recommend it highly enough—as history, as epic, and, not least, as entertainment. It’s as luxuriantly pleasurable as one of those great big sprawling, sweeping Victorian novels.” 
 –Hendrik Hertzberg, The New Yorker

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash Broadway musical Hamilton has sparked new interest in the Revolutionary War and the Founding Fathers. In addition to Alexander Hamilton, the production also features George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Aaron Burr, Lafayette, and many more.

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Truly the only factual biography of George Washington. While the biographer is an obvious fan who repeatedly made excuses to explain his hero's shortcomings, Chernow's dedication to facts & use of seldom referenced documented resources shows us the true dark side of the real George Washington. Most notable of these sources is the revealing correspondence between George Washington concerning his many purchases from British merchants which clearly depict the utter levels of vanity & self aggrandizing of his well crafted facade he presented to others from his silver buttons, custom made coach, footman uniforms and use of white sparkle powder & black polish to provide a dazzling finish for his white horses to put on a show for the public & his peers.
In these correspondences, George Washington himself lists his own height at 6'1" for his tailor. The erroneous 6'4" measurement was made after his death when the body has relaxed & made to accommodate room in the coffin for his boot heels etc.
Washington's greed for land is also well established in Chernow's excellent research & supporting documentation. Unlike the biased claims of Ellis, we learn GW did indeed inherit land from his father (among other things) which his mother managed since he was a minor. But GW didn't like the couple hundred acre "Ferry farm" because of an easement which allowed the public to cross for the Ferry. He shamelessly coveted his brothers Mt Vernon & all of his titles which GW ended up getting everything his brother owned despite having been 5th on the list of contingent heirs which all conveniently died.
Even more disturbing was the link to the inheritance of his stepdaughter Patsy Custis. We learn her epileptic seizures had ceased while GW was away, but upon his return, she has a fatal seizure where GW tightly squeezed her, whence she died. GW was her sole heir (not her mother or brother) and her fortune came to GW just in the nick of time to stave off creditors from collecting on his sizeable overdue debts. Chernow did not grasp the implication but it was his research and revelation of these little known facts that we learned of these disturbing links between her death & GW's urgent need to stop action on his delinquent debts. It makes one wonder what was added to poor Patsy's food upon his return to invoke this sudden onset of seizures which had abated during GW's absence.
GW's temper is also well represented as was his annual winter mansion retreats, dances, feasts & riding parties with Martha & 18 personal servants & staff & local gentry ladies while his troops were freezing, half naked, staving, ill & dying by the thousands as GW complained in a letter of being bored & cramped for space in the mansion 5 miles away. He never went home because he brought his home to him throughout the entire war & partied every winter for 6 months. Check out the Ford mansion in NJ where he spent one of those winters.
The one glaring shortcoming of Chernow was his extreme hostility toward GW's mother. It was extreme to the point where you question if Chernow has some serious issues with his own mother or women in general. If you read GW's correspondence to and about his mother, you will see downright cruelty & retribution toward her. There are other books which are better for presenting this issue & the actual correspondences between them & GW's machinations thwarting her efforts to obtain income since GW just barely kept her above poverty level where she still had to beg & borrow.
Be sure to read how GW squeezed $400,000 out of the Congress for his extravagant personal spending during the war while his soldiers were starving, naked, unpaid & without supplies while he feasted & danced & adorned himself & horses in the best of accoutrements. GW also tried to trade salary for expenses as President but having been burned by GW during the war on his expenses instead of salary
 

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An Enigmatic Caesar
Who was he? Patriot? Shrewd businessman? Great General? Military Impostor? Brilliant statesman? Naive politician? Loving husband? Duplicitous lady's man? Emancipator of his
slaves? Callous, driving slave master? Is it possible that our first President, revered Father of our Country, embodied all of these starkly contradictory characteristics? As meticulously researched by Mr. Chernow it does appear that is the case - at least in appearance. Brilliantly obsessive in its minutely detailed depiction of his life, Washington emerges as a Man for all Seasons, the perfect vessel to reflect all the desires, aspirations, hopes, dreams & fears of our nascent nation. There is no doubt that he loved his country fiercely with all the courage & fortitude he could muster. There is also little left to the reader's imagination that he was an ambitious achiever who carefully plotted his rise to power, tossing off & squashing those who crossed him or could not live up to his expectations. A cunning politician, esteemed leader, loving husband & inspiration to his generation & for all those to come, Washington is the epitome of the American character, all that we can possibly be & all that we fear we might.  

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About the author (2010)

Ron Chernow is the prize-winning author of six books and the recipient of the 2015 National Humanities Medal. His first book, The House of Morgan, won the National Book Award, Washington: A Life won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Biography, and Alexander Hamilton was the inspiration for the Broadway musical. His new biography, Grant, will be published in October 2017. Chernow lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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