By Ron Chernow, Penguin Press, 904 pages, $40
As the dominant figure of the American Revolution and early republic, George Washington, the man, has long been shrouded by dense myths, the “civic deity” and “exemplar of moral virtue.” In his new large-scale biography of Washington, Ron Chernow pierces the shroud by recreating the man “as he was seen by his contemporaries.” What emerges is a probing examination of Washington as the conflicted slave-owner, sharp-elbowed businessman, under-appreciated son, generous sibling, aloof husband, self-doubting military officer, and debt-ridden planter who had trouble controlling his own personal spending habits. In exposing these human complexities, the author’s masterful narrative enables modern readers to fully appreciate Washington’s achievements.
The author’s insights are based on close research of the 60 volumes of letters and diaries of Washington’s papers, which have been carefully compiled by the University of Virginia since 1968. The prodigious collection, which includes 130,000 relevant documents from around the globe, includes not only those materials written by Washington, but also letters written to him, the diaries of both his friends and foes, and contemporary newspapers. In the hands of an experienced chronicler, these materials provide an “extraordinary window” into Washington’s mind.
As deftly told by the author, New York City was the site of both the low- and high-point of Washington’s public career. The nadir took place in mid-September 1776 as the general commanded Revolutionary troops in the Battle of Kip’s Bay, where British troops thoroughly routed the Americans.
As his officers and troops hastily retreated, Washington bitterly berated them for their cowardice, even flogging several officers with his riding crop. Amidst this emotional breakdown, the general suddenly found himself sitting alone on horseback in a Murray Hill cornfield with 50 British soldiers dashing toward him, a mere 80 yards away. Catatonic, Washington had to be whisked away by aides who secured his safety by grabbing the reins of his horse. According to the author, “it was a moment unlike any other in Washington’s career.”
The greatest moment of Washington’s public life also took place in New York, where he was inaugurated as the first president on April 30, 1789. During the next 16 months, the federal government was based in New York, and the author entertainingly explains how Washington started it from scratch.
One challenge Washington faced as the country’s first chief executive was how to balance the divergent views of his combative cabinet, which included high-spirited rivals such as Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. As told by the author, Washington “consulted much, pondered much; resolved slowly, resolved surely.”
As a thinker and a decider, Washington “never was a man of lightening-fast intuitions or sudden epiphanies,” but “groped his way to firm and accurate conclusions.” The author comments that “equipped with keen powers of judgment rather than originality,” Washington “was at his best when reacting to options presented by others,” and once he made up his mind, “it was difficult to dislodge him from his opinion.”
Among the book’s more interesting passages are those that describe the two houses that Washington resided in during the New York portion of his presidency.
The first, located at 3 Cherry St. (razed in the 1870s for the approach to the Brooklyn Bridge) was so cramped that state dinners had to be limited to 14 guests.
The second, located at 39-41 Broadway, was more spacious and included a balcony with “unobstructed views of the Hudson River.” After he moved into 39-41 Broadway, we are told that Washington purchased 14 new Swiss whale-oil lamps, which he crowed burned cleaner and brighter than anything used before. In this manner, the author quips, Washington “initiated America’s insatiable appetite for the oil.”
A robust outdoors-man, Washington deplored the sedentary city life he had to endure in New York, and it significantly weakened his health. The author tells us that six weeks after his inauguration, Washington developed a high fever and fast-growing tumor on his left leg, which required surgery and several weeks of bed rest. Then, in May 1790, Washington almost died from a serious bout of pneumonia.
As Washington lay incapacitated during both ordeals, the federal government lost its rudder and drifted. No one seemed to know what to do. Even the press remained silent. As persuasively explained by the author, Washington had dominated American political life for so long that many Americans could not conceive of life without him.
In the last analysis, the author observes that Washington “was not a perfect man” and possessed “a normal quota of human frailty.” Like others, Washington “craved money, status, and fame.”
But unlike most of his contemporaries, he “learned to subordinate his personal dreams and aspirations to the service of a larger cause.” And in so doing, he demonstrated that the president of a republic “could possess a grandeur surpassing that of all the crowned heads of Europe.”