WASHINGTON: A LIFE
By Ron Chernow
Penguin, $40 904 pages
At least once every generation someone writes another “major” biography of George Washington. Predictably, each new book claims to be the seal of the prophets, the one that finally reveals the “real” George Washington as we have never seen him
before. Only they don’t. While the works have ranged wildly from 19th-century Parson Weems hagiographies to early-20th-century debunkings, none of them has really brought Washington back to life.
Even more scholarly and balanced reappraisals have lacked lasting impact. Modern Americans are more attracted to the tormented (Lincoln), the hyperactive (Teddy Roosevelt) and the flawed charmers (FDR, JFK and even Bill Clinton) than to dignified, self-disciplined figures whose very virtues make us uncomfortable about our own inadequate selves.
George Washington’s curiously lifeless immortality is not primarily the fault of his biographers. Their unhappy fate has been to write about an icon rather than a man, to try to reanimate someone who is literally larger than life. For more than two centuries now, Washington has been so monumentalized, so oversold to the American public, that most people are not all that interested in reopening the subject. Why unseal the family tomb and disinter one’s venerated but largely forgotten great grandpa?
Thus Douglas Southall Freeman, whose biography of Robert E. Lee remains a popular classic, wrote a seven-volume life of Washington between 1948 and 1957 that was already gathering dust before the last book saw its way into print. More recently, Thomas Flexner and Joseph Ellis have contributed solid, insightful lives of the man who is - quite justly - remembered as the father of our country without renewing much interest in their subject.
Perhaps the nearest thing to a revival at the popular level occurred in 1996 when Richard Brookhiser wrote “Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington,” a short, forceful appreciation of Washington that shunned superfluous details and rendered the man in spare but vivid brush strokes.
Now comes Ron Chernow, the deservedly acclaimed biographer of Alexander Hamilton and John D. Rockefeller, and the latest author to attempt a resurrection of our immortal but unlively Founder. While Mr. Chernow emphasizes the fact that his hefty life of Washington is the first to draw on the 60 volumes of documents in the recent edition of the Washington papers published by the University of Virginia, most of his important insights are not so much new as restated and elucidated. This is not a criticism; for a generation of readers that needs reintroduction to a great but calcified figure in our history it is just what the doctor ordered.
Although a few liberal reviewers have selectively fastened on bits of shabby trivia in this lengthy work to diminish Washington as a figure - his financial interests in western territory that could be more easily developed without interference from the British Crown and thus might have influenced his decision to break with royal authority, his less than brilliant tactical gifts as a military commander and his aloofness - Mr. Chernow himself has no doubt about Washington’s greatness.
His final verdict, while true is anything but new: Mr. Chernow’s Washington is a man of “unerring judgment, sterling character, rectitude, steadfast patriotism, unflagging sense of duty, and civic mindedness.” Note to readers: If you’ve met anyone like that lately in the city that bears his name, please let me know.
Mr. Chernow does a fine job of telling George Washington’s story, although there are moments when he suffers from time warp as a 21st-century writer with Freudian baggage trying to explain an 18th-century gentleman living by a clear code of honor that emphasized quiet courage, dedication to duty and stern self-control rather than getting in touch with one’s inner child. Again and again, Mr. Chernow refers to Washington’s “repressing” or “suppressing” his feelings as if he were dealing with a pathology rather than a triumph of character over impulse.
The problem for Mr. Chernow - as for all modern Washington biographers - is simple: George Washington hasn’t changed, but we have. For several generations now, we have been urged to loosen up, let it all hang out and indulge the impulses of the moment; I’m OK, you’re OK and everyone gets a passing grade just for being themselves. Forget about homework, self-improvement or seeking any broader goal than unearned self-esteem; it’s all about feeling good about ourselves without being “judgmental.”
No one judged himself more constantly or more severely than George Washington. From an early age, he strived to make himself a better person. He was a man of powerful passions and raging ambition, but he conquered his passion and he channeled his ambition honorably. Having mastered himself, he mastered the art of command; a man with no formal military training, leading what began as an armed rabble, he created and held together the first regular American army - “continentals” who numbered in their ranks a humble ancestor of this reviewer.
Washington may have lost a number of battles, but he learned from each defeat how to preserve the trust of the soldiers who served under him. As presiding officer at the constitutional convention and then as first president, he provided gravitas and a clear, uncluttered vision that none of the flashier talents of the day could equal, which probably explains why men like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were never really comfortable in his presence. They may have been better read than Washington, but none of them commanded the same respect, and they knew it.
Shortly after World War II, when the self-indulgent consumer society of today was taking shape, Noel Coward wrote a song lyric that asked, “What’s going to happen to the children when there aren’t any more grown-ups?” We have since found out. Fortunately for us, the structures, strictures and examples that shaped America were the work of a less self-centered generation. But even then juvenile rivalries, regional jealousies and narrow selfishness posed a serious threat to a nation in the process of being born.
In war and in peace, George Washington was not so much the Founding Father as the founding grown-up, the man who brought mature judgment and balance to the sometimes histrionic goings on of more clever but less wise contemporaries. Ron Chernow, a talented biographer with a strong narrative gift, does full justice to the one truly indispensable man in our nation’s history, the first and best of example of that distinctly American commodity, the self-made man.
Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan. His writings on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts have been widely published in the United States and Europe and the United Kingdom.