George Washington:A Life by Ron Chernow
February 22, 1732
1775 to 1783 - Commanded Continental Army during the American Revolution
1789 to 1797 - First President of The United States
December 14, 1799.
If you love American history and have not yet read Ron Chernow's biographies of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington you have a marvelous experience awaiting you.
Last month I posted on his Alexander Hamilton - http://rereadinglives.blogspot.com/2019/09/alexander-hamilton-by-ron-chernow-2004_21.html, made into a Broadway musical. Hamilton was Washington's Aide de Camp as well as a military commander during the American Revolution and was the first secretary of the treasury.
I will in this post not recap Washington's life, just talk a bit about some of the many things that struck me.
Chernow brought Washington very much to life for me. Long long ago my family and I visited his home in Mount Vernon, from Chernow I felt the great sadness Washington experienced during the eight years the Revolution kept him away from his home and his business.
Chernow faces square on a fundamental issue, one must say, a flaw in the character of a basically highly principled man, Washington's attitude toward slavery. He did see the contradiction in leading a war for liberty while owning hundreds of slaves. Washington is portrayed by Chernow as treating his slaves better than most Virginia plantation owners, he respected slave marriages, he did not sell of spouses or children, he did not rape captive women, he made sure older slaves who could not work had food and medical care. However, he did have slaves whipped and if a slave would not work and obey the rules he did on occasion sell them to West Indian sugar plantations, which was about a three years to death sentence. Washington thought a slave should want to do their best for his or her master. He sent slaves out to work in subfreezing weather. Forty seven slaves attempted to escape from his ownership and he never seemed to understand why. He did come to see that perhaps it would be better business to free the slaves thus relieving him of the burden of feeding them and just hire workers. He freeded about half the Mount Vernon slaves in his will but half were actually owned by the children of Martha from a prior marriage so he could not under Virginia law free them. He also knew if he opposed slavery, the southern states might not join the union and might in fact side with the British.
We learn how Washington obtained wealth through inheritance and from his marriage. Washington did enjoy the company of attractive women but seems in all probability never to have cheated on his wife.
We go along during his leadership in the French and Indian War. His successful experience during this lead to his selection as leader of the Continental Army. We meet his generals as well as the British leaders. Chernow explained how the reluctance of British generals to press early advantages was a great break for the rebels.
Chernow goes into detail about the terrible hardships at Valley Forge. The farmers in the surrounding areas had lots of food for sale but most would not accept American paper money. Washington would not allow his soldiers to just take supplies, knowing this might turn the population against the
revolutionary efforts. We also see that as the war moved to the southern states, Washington's Quarter Master general did confiscate livestock at the point of a gun on occasions.
A big problem in the eight year war was keeping the army in tact. Soldiers enlisted normally for one year and got very tired of being hungry and not getting paid. Both the British and the Americans induced slaves to fight with promises of freedom after victory. The prospect of slaves with guns caused many plantation owners to fear a slave uprising.
Washington went as long as three years without seeing action. He was focused on taking New York State and the Philadelphia area but the British moved the war to Georgia and the Carolinas, taking advantage of their unmatched in the world fleet to move their troops. The Brotish generals were used to fighting pitched battles on open fields. American militia volunteers adopted a style of fighting, partially learned fighting Indians, better suited to American terrain. Chernow showed that Washington's best military field commander was Nathaniel Greene. He goes into a lot of fascinating detail about his relationship to Alexander Hamilton.
The entrance of the French in the war was very valuable. We learn a lot about Lafayette's life, role in the war and his close friendship with Washington. I loved learning about the probably gay German officer who turned the Continental Army into a professional fighting force. Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand Steuben
After the war ended it seemed like Washington just wanted to get back to Mount Vernon.
This post is long already. Chernow brilliantly narrates Washington's time as president, many wanted to make him president for life.
Many know Washington as the father of America, he had no children most likely as a consequence of either his small pox or injuries to Martha during childbirth. He was very close to his step children and lots of nephews and nieces.
Every American schoolchild used to be taught Washington was called the father of his country.
If you want to know why can also be called the father of the American mule, read this book!
I read last year his book on the Warburg banking family. I have kindly been given a review copy of his latest book, a biography of Grant which I will read next year, I hope.