Penguin Press: 906 pp., $40
On Dec. 14, 1799, an ominous, fog-like gloom hung over Mount Vernon. Sixty-seven-year-old George Washington was dying. The ex-president, his doctors believed, was suffering from “quinsy” (a throat inflammation). In fact, Washington had contracted a vicious bacterial infection. His windpipe was swollen shut. Washington may have defeated the British at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, but an inflamed epiglottis got the best of him in 1799. “Though he never complained,” biographer Ron Chernow recounts of those last hours, “Washington was expiring in a particularly gruesome fashion and constantly gasped for air.”
There are many ways to measure greatness. But the poised manner of Washington is a gold-star example of a brave life lived with honor. Seeking no religious comfort or last rites, Washington’s only deathbed request was that he not be buried until three days after his expiration; he feared consciousness while being underground. Terms agreed-upon, Washington smiled contentedly. “I feel myself going,” he whispered. “I thank you for your attentions, but I pray you to take no more trouble about me. Let me go off quietly. I cannot last long.”
Until his last breath, Washington epitomized self-control, sterling judgment, old-fashioned civility and noblesse oblige. Cultivating aloofness as his political sword, the 6-foot-2-inch Washington owned any room he entered. All these qualities come bursting forth in Chernow’s “Washington: A Life,” an epic, cradle-to-grave biography destined to win a slew of book awards. A Brooklyn native best known for his brilliant studies of Alexander Hamilton and John D. Rockefeller, Chernow displays a breadth of knowledge about Washington that is nothing short of phenomenal.
An epic life
Though Douglas Southall Freeman, for my money, still owns the franchise in Washington studies with his magisterial seven-volume biography (written between 1948 and 1957), never before has Washington been rendered so tangibly in such a smart, tenaciously researched volume as Chernow’s opus. Chernow has found his perfect subject. “Where other founders gloried in displays of intellect, Washington’s strategy was the opposite: the less people knew about him, the more he thought he could accomplish,” Chernow writes. “Opacity was his means of enhancing his power and influencing events.”
All the other so-called Founding Fathers — Benjamin Franklin, , John Adams and the rest — glittered in print or public forum, finding value in winning debates and settling scores. Washington, by contrast, was all about consensus-building, operating above the fray, being the North Star in a galaxy all his own. Not that Washington didn’t have his way with words. His description of Valley Forge as being “little less than a famine” sounds exactly right. And his writing that New York City was the “fountain of all intelligence” likewise has a ring of truth about it. But it’s Washington’s outstanding performances — not his sharp-minded ideas — that we celebrate.
Man of the people
Growing up, Washington had been fiercely ambitious, concerned with making money and gaining fame. By the time he turned 40, however, he had served America more than his own self-interest. Refusing to ever self-aggrandize, he always gave credit to the institution—whether it was the Continental Army, Masonry, matrimony or the Office of the Presidency—over the individual.
Unusual for an aristocrat, the curse of elitism never consumed Washington. He was not a dandy. Shortly after he was inaugurated president on April 30, 1789, in New York, for example, he made the wise decision to visit all 13 states at once. Because he was a Virginian, a man of the South, protocol dictated that he first tour the North. Washington conceived the trip as a listening tour, a chance to sample public opinion. Thomas Jefferson mocked Washington for not offering any copious new ideas on this tour, for lacking a “fluency of words.” Sometimes Washington would simply listen to farmers, shop-keepers, and ministers carp without offering rebuttal. Chernow offers the novel theory that Washington sometimes stayed mum because he didn’t want his dentures to pop out. “Opening his mouth relaxed the pressure on the curved metal springs connecting the upper and lower dentures, which might cause them to slip out,” Chernow explains. “That Washington risked such embarrassment in order to make direct contact with the people shows his self-sacrificing nature.”
Maybe. But perhaps Washington was simply too shrewd to be the presidential know-it-all. Since Washington truly believed in the people of America, wasn’t it wise to hear them first hand? Today, presidents gobble up myriad polls as bellwethers of national mood. In Washington’s day, simply fanning out across the countryside was the best strategy. While Jefferson and Adams represented Enlightenment ideas, Washington self-styled himself for being the humble depository of the public will.
It was the Electoral College that elected Washington president in 1789. In the election of 1792, Washington won 100% of the vote (take that, Fidel Castro). Because Washington wasn’t an ideas guy, like the bickering Jefferson and Adams, he was never a member of a political party. His loyalty was to the flag. Many foreign powers were reluctant to recognize Washington as a legitimate leader. Wouldn’t Great Britain soon retake the patchwork 13-colonies-turned-states?
What makes Chernow’s “Washington” such a riveting read is the depiction of intrigue between principal characters. In the annals of U.S. history, only the Franklin Delano Roosevelt- Winston Churchill relationship equals the extraordinary bond between Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette in bilateral importance. Readers are reminded that the treacherous Benedict Arnold was actually one of the greatest battlefield commanders of the Revolutionary War era. The “palatable affection” that Washington has for John Jay is endearing. Perhaps because Chernow has a well-established affinity for Hamilton, Washington’s loyal aide-de-camp, only Jefferson fares badly in the all-star cast of founding legends. With peevish regularity, the Sage of Monticello snipes at Washington. While others were in awe of the first U.S. President, Jefferson saw his fellow Virginian as a stiff, unbending, unoriginal military-type that believed he was somehow immune from criticism. While Jefferson is respectful of Washington, he rejects the fetish worship that swirled around the old general at all times. “George Washington is a hard master,” Jefferson complains. “Very severe, a hard husband, a hard father, a hard governor.” In Chernow’s world, however, it’s Jefferson who is hard to take. Washington, by contrast, never let ad hominem remarks get under his skin. (He’s like Ronald Reagan in that regard.)
Washington, in death, had become a cult of everybody. Forgotten were his self-promoting early years and elbow-sharp political tactics. He was honored as the embodiment of America. Upon his death, Martha, his loving wife, burned their personal correspondence. Why squabble with historians, she thought, when everybody, it seemed, was already on the Great Man bandwagon? Washington was destined to become, as Chernow puts it, the “most interior of founders.” When news of his death was town-criered across America, a preacher asked: “Will not darkness now gather in our land?”
Chernow is too fine a historian to oversell Washington. There are plenty of flaws disclosed in “Washington: A Life,” many aimed at his “hard-driving” behavior toward slaves. Yet there is no Washington ascending to the heavens or tossing a silver dollar across the Rappahannock River in these pages. Contrary to popular myth, it was Martha Washington — not George — who freed their slaves a year after her husband’s death. Overall, however, Chernow believes Washington is an A-plus historical figure because of a “clarity and purpose of vision” that never betrayed him. “People felt the inner force of his nature,” Chernow concludes. “Even if they didn’t exactly see it or hear it, they sensed his moods without being told.”
Brinkley is a professor of history at Rice University and the author of “The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America.”