Washington: A Life

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Penguin Publishing Group, Oct 5, 2010 - Biography & Autobiography - 928 pages
6 Reviews
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Read "Surprising Facts About George Washington" from Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

From Pulitzer-prize winner Ron Chernow, a landmark biography of George Washington.

In Washington: A Life celebrated biographer Ron Chernow provides a richly nuanced portrait of the father of our nation. With a breadth and depth matched by no other one-volume life of Washington, this crisply paced narrative carries the reader through his troubled boyhood, his precocious feats in the French and Indian War, his creation of Mount Vernon, his heroic exploits with the Continental Army, his presiding over the Constitutional Convention, and his magnificent performance as America's first president.

Despite the reverence his name inspires, Washington remains a lifeless waxwork for many Americans, worthy but dull. A laconic man of granite self-control, he often arouses more respect than affection. In this groundbreaking work, based on massive research, Chernow dashes forever the stereotype of a stolid, unemotional man. A strapping six feet, Washington was a celebrated horseman, elegant dancer, and tireless hunter, with a fiercely guarded emotional life. Chernow brings to vivid life a dashing, passionate man of fiery opinions and many moods. Probing his private life, he explores his fraught relationship with his crusty mother, his youthful infatuation with the married Sally Fairfax, and his often conflicted feelings toward his adopted children and grandchildren. He also provides a lavishly detailed portrait of his marriage to Martha and his complex behavior as a slave master.

At the same time, Washington is an astute and surprising portrait of a canny political genius who knew how to inspire people. Not only did Washington gather around himself the foremost figures of the age, including James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, but he also brilliantly orchestrated their actions to shape the new federal government, define the separation of powers, and establish the office of the presidency.

In this unique biography, Ron Chernow takes us on a page-turning journey through all the formative events of America's founding. With a dramatic sweep worthy of its giant subject, Washington is a magisterial work from one of our most elegant storytellers.


From the Hardcover edition.

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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 Pulitzer prize-winning author of five previous books. His first, The House of Morgan, won the National Book Award. His two most recent books, Alexander Hamilton and Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., were both nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography.  Washington: A Life received the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. Chernow lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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