Book of the Fortnight – Washington: A Life (part 1)

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We are back with another book review for your reading pleasure. And this one features one of our personal favorites. The Main Man. George Washington. This fortnight we bring you one of the most acclaimed biographies of 2011, the Pulitzer Prize winning Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. Ron Chernow is perhaps best known for his 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton or his 1998 biography of John D. Rockefeller.   In researching the life of George Washington, Chernow left no stone unturned and the end result is a fascinating character study of a man who, prior to this book, was known as somewhat of a blank slate.

Why two parts? Well, with a life as full of accomplishments as George Washington it would be difficult to fit it all in to one review (though that’s never stopped me from going on a bit…). And the book is 900 pages long. Be fair. So Part One will be about the pre-Presidency years.  What I hope to show you, the reader, is the difference between the ambitious social climber of the young George Washington, contrasted against the more humble, wiser George Washington that emerged during the Revolutionary War.  But as Chernow expertly demonstrates throughout the book, while his behavior certainly changed, many aspects of his personality remained intact from his youth until his death.

In contrast to his image as General and President, George was extremely ambitious as a young man.  He became the official surveyor of Culpepper County, Virginia at seventeen and immediately began a program of networking and social-climbing that he hoped would vault him into the Virginia aristocracy.  To enhance this image he spent well above his income to buy the finer things, a lifestyle that would lead him into a lifetime of debt.

George inherited the Mount Vernon estate and series of farms in 1752 at the age of twenty upon the death of his brother Lawrence.  He also began his military service to the crown as French aggression spread to nearby Ohio.  As a 21-year-old Major (his connections to Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie as surveyor helped him enter the militia at this advanced rank) Washington was given orders to lead a small group into the disputed Ohio territories and inform the french of the British claims on the land.  In the course of completing his assignment Washington and his regiment stumbled upon a French scouting party.  While the details of the events that transpired were never verified, the result was a rout by the Virginia militia, including the death of the leader of the french scouting party, Joseph Coulon de Jumonville.  The controversy sparked by this incident reverberated across the Atlantic and is seen as the start of the Seven Years War (known in America as the French and Indian War).  Chernow writes that historian and politician Sir Horace Walpole wrote at the time that “The volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire.”  It’s hard to believe, but at twenty-one George Washington had already had an impact on world affairs, and was well known to the crown.

Following the controversy surrounding the Jumonville Incident, Washington stumbled through a series of military failures.  George Washington designed and built Fort Necessity in southwestern Pennsylvania in 1754.  Its poor strategic placement led to the surrender of the fort to the French by the end of the year.  And in 1755 he was second in command to British General Edward Braddock at a humiliating defeat at the hands of French and Indian forces.  Despite the loss, though, Washington was rewarded with a promotion to Colonel for his valor in rallying the troops during the defeat.

In his early military career in the Virginia Regiment Washington was constantly trying to obtain a full commission to the British armed forces.  At the time the colonial regiments were seen as a second-class outfit, and none of its officers were truly taken seriously.  Washington’s ambition would lead him to go over his superior officer’s heads and complain behind their backs.  Frustrated by his lack of the commission he thought he deserved, George resigned his Virginia Regiment commission in 1758 and retired to Mount Vernon to live the life of a well-connected gentleman planter at the tender age of 26.

Some see George Washington’s choice to marry wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759 as another example of social climbing.  This would not have been out of the ordinary, though, as “marriages of convenience” were commonplace among society’s elite during the 18th century.  What is indisputable is that what George and Martha may have lacked in romance they made up for with a lifetime of devotion and affection.  George Washington’s letters show a portrait of a man who had the utmost respect for his wife and longed for her company during his many stretches away from home.

Washington’s years as a planter and member of the House of Burgesses (1759-1774) were marked by inconsistent performance, bad weather, and more debt.  While hardly an unsuccessful planter (Mount Vernon’s four farms were self sustaining and quite innovative for the time) Washington’s penchant for the finest imported British goods and fashions prevented him from paying off his debts completely.  His slave population was a combination of slaves he owned and slaves inherited by Martha’s dowry.  As a slave owner Washington was said to have been kind, though demanding.  His letters show that throughout his life he disagreed with the institution and hoped it could be phased out in the future.  But similar to his contemporaries he did little about it and accepted it as an evil that he was powerless to stop.

Chernow writes of a studious George Washington, the farmer.  Always trying to adapt to the latest farming techniques he switched from crop to crop, often one step behind.  His letters show him continually stymied by bad weather and worse luck.  But over time and after continuous improvements to the farms, Mount Vernon began to turn a profit.  At the same time George was living the life of a society gentleman.  George frequently indulged in fox-hunting, the theater, dinners, dancing (he was supposedly a remarkable dancer).  That would begin to change in 1765.

Washington opposed the Stamp Act (1765) or the Townshend Acts (1767) but was not particularly vocal about it.  Chernow writes about Washington’s political transformation during that time as the result of his friendship with George Mason.  Chernow suspects that years of resentment at the crown for their failure to recognize the talent they had in him during the French and Indian War was one of the motivating factors that took Washington from respectful disagreement of the acts to outright disobedience.  By 1774 and the passage of the Intolerable Acts, Washington was leading boycotts and had helped organize the meeting of the first Continental Congress.

In 1775 the second Continental Congress met following the Battle of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts.  Washington was already viewed as the natural choice to lead the Continental Army, and his selection was a mere formality.  Even though Washington (as he often did) feigned indifference and publicly stated he had no ambitions for the post, he came to the meetings dressed in a military uniform -just in case anybody needed reminding.

This pattern of publicly disavowing anything resembling ambition would continue for the rest of George Washington’s life and would exist in stark contrast to the younger, hungrier George Washington.  After all, it is what we know him for.  We know him as the humble man who reluctantly served as Commander of the Continental Army.  We revere him for being the only man who could be the first President, but also as the man who didn’t want to be President.  And we love him for being the man who stepped aside after two terms with no delusions of grandeur and the opinion that the country could survive without him. This transformation in his character (although partially staged) is the most important difference between Washington’s early life and his life post-1775.  For George Washington would have to learn to deal with fame on a level that had not been seen in America to that point -and probably has not been seen since.  Stay tuned for Part II.

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One Response to Book of the Fortnight – Washington: A Life (part 1)

  1. Drae says:

    Washington was a rock star before there were such things as rock stars.

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