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Washington: A Life

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The celebrated Ron Chernow provides a richly nuanced portrait of the father of America. With a breadth and depth matched by no other one-volume life, he carries the reader through Washington's troubled boyhood, his precocious feats in the French and Indian Wars, his creation of Mount Vernon, his heroic exploits with the Continental Army, his presiding over the Constitutional Convention and his magnificent performance as America's first president.

Despite the reverence his name inspires Washington remains a waxwork to many readers, worthy but dull, a laconic man of remarkable self-control. But in this groundbreaking work Chernow revises forever the uninspiring stereotype. He portrays Washington as a strapping, celebrated horseman, elegant dancer and tireless hunter, who guarded his emotional life with intriguing ferocity. Not only did Washington gather around himself the foremost figures of the age, including James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, he orchestrated their actions to help realise his vision for the new federal government, define the separation of powers, and establish the office of the presidency.

Ron Chernow takes us on a page-turning journey through all the formative events of America's founding. This is a magisterial work from one of America's foremost writers and historians.

904 pages, Hardcover

First published January 5, 2010

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About the author

Ron Chernow

42 books4,989 followers
Ron Chernow was born in 1949 in Brooklyn, New York. After graduating with honors from Yale College and Cambridge University with degrees in English Literature, he began a prolific career as a freelance journalist. Between 1973 and 1982, Chernow published over sixty articles in national publications, including numerous cover stories. In the mid-80s Chernow went to work at the Twentieth Century Fund, a prestigious New York think tank, where he served as director of financial policy studies and received what he described as “a crash course in economics and financial history.”

Chernow’s journalistic talents combined with his experience studying financial policy culminated in the writing of his extraordinary first book, The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance (1990). Winner of the 1990 National Book Award for Nonfiction, The House of Morgan traces the amazing history of four generations of the J.P. Morgan empire. The New York Times Book Review wrote, “As a portrait of finance, politics and the world of avarice and ambition on Wall Street, the book has the movement and tension of an epic novel. It is, quite simply, a tour de force.” Chernow continued his exploration of famous financial dynasties with his second book, The Warburgs (1994), the story of a remarkable Jewish family. The book traces Hamburg’s most influential banking family of the 18th century from their successful beginnings to when Hitler’s Third Reich forced them to give up their business, and ultimately to their regained prosperity in America on Wall Street.

Described by Time as “one of the great American biographies,” Chernow’s Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (1998) brilliantly reveals the complexities of America’s first billionaire. Rockefeller was known as a Robber Baron, whose Standard Oil Company monopolized an entire industry before it was broken up by the famous Supreme Court anti-trust decision in 1911. At the same time, Rockefeller was one of the century’s greatest philanthropists donating enormous sums to universities and medical institutions. Chernow is the Secretary of PEN American Center, the country’s most prominent writers’ organization, and is currently at work on a biography of Alexander Hamilton. He lives in Brooklyn Heights, New York.

In addition to writing biographies, Chernow is a book reviewer, essayist, and radio commentator. His book reviews and op-ed articles appear frequently in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. He comments regularly on business and finance for National Public Radio and for many shows on CNBC, CNN, and the Fox News Channel. In addition, he served as the principal expert on the A&E biography of J.P. Morgan and will be featured as the key Rockefeller expert on an upcoming CNBC documentary.

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Profile Image for Matt.
917 reviews28.2k followers
July 10, 2020
“[George] Washington had dominated American political life for so long that many Americans could not conceive of life without him. A widespread fear arose that, deprived of his guiding hand, the Republic itself might founder…Perhaps as an antidote to such apprehension, Washington was smothered beneath national piety, and it became difficult for biographers to reclaim the complex human being. The man immediately began to merge with the myth. As the subject of more than four hundred printed orations [after his death], Washington was converted into an exemplar of moral values, the person chosen to tutor posterity in patriotism, even a civic deity…Washington’s transformation into a sacred figure erased his tough, often moody nature, stressing only his serene composure and making it more difficult for future generations to fathom his achievements. Abigail Adams justly rebelled at the idealized portrait: ‘Simple truth is his best, his greatest euology…’”
- Ron Chernow: Washington: A Life

I think it has something to do with his portraits.

George Washington is our most important president (for good or bad he shaped the office into what it is today), he is our most distant president, and he is our most inscrutable president (of the presidents we care about, of course; Benjamin Harrison is also a tad inscrutable, as if anyone cares).

To many of his contemporaries, Washington was a demigod. As the leader of the Continental Army, he’d done the impossible in fighting off the British Empire, then the most powerful military force on earth. Later, when people were lining up to give him absolute power, he refused, and eventually, walked away. Throughout the course of his life, he also carefully tended his image, suppressing his fierce temper in an attempt to remain outwardly poised and distant. After he had died, the mythologizing continued, with the likes of Parson Mason Locke Weems spinning tall tales about Washington out of whole cloth. The federal city was named after him, as well as a state. There are hundreds of counties and towns and high schools and streets and avenues and boulevards and traffic circles that also bear his name, further abstracting the man and adding to his myth.

There is also the issue of his portraits.

George Washington lived and died before photographs. Thus, the image we have of him comes from highly-subjective, often exaggerated, sometimes striking (a lazy eye! really?) physical descriptions. It also comes from the portraits. The problem with these portraits, though, is that they aren’t recognizably human. There is something lifeless, caricatured, and two-dimensional about them, even the best ones. In some full-body portraits, Washington looks like Gumby; in paintings of just his face, he looks waxen.

Compare this to Abraham Lincoln, the president with whom Washington is inextricably tied by birth month and historical achievement. Lincoln stares out at us from dozens of photographic plates. We can see all the wrinkles. We can see the hollowed cheeks, and watch as they get ever more hollow through the years of the Civil War. We can see the haunted eyes. Lincoln’s photographs, combined with his bouts of melancholy and self-doubt, make him excruciatingly human.

Washington, though, remains aloof from humanity, like one of the gods on Olympus.

Accordingly, any author who tackles Washington has – as his or her first priority – the task of making this figure of marble and stone into a man of flesh and blood and really, really bad teeth.

Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life does this as well as any one-volume biography possibly can. (And pays due attention to Washington’s dentures).

Chernow doesn’t succeed by reinventing our notions of George Washington. There is nothing new here to radically alter what we know about Washington’s historical person. There is no striking reevaluation of his generalship or his presidency; Chernow posits no National Treasure-like theories with regards to Washington’s masonry, or whether or not Washington left clues to a buried chest of gold ingots in the U.S. Constitution.

Instead, Chernow has used his access to the most up-to-date compilations of Washington’s papers to give us an illuminating look at this man, often in his own words (as Chernow notes in his acknowledgments, the collection of Washington’s papers allows us, 200 years later, far more insight into Washington’s life than his closest companions had at the time Washington was alive).

The Washington that is revealed through his diaries and letters and reports is as complex as you’d expect: at times humble, at time vainglorious; at times charitable, at times petty. Washington is revealed as a dynamic figure, with differing, sometimes contradictory impulses, rife with contradictions and hypocrisies. To Chernow’s credit, he does not attempt to explain away these contradictions or smooth over Washington’s rough edges; neither does he try to project upon Washington a falsely redemptive arc. He gives us Washington the human, a man who didn't always make sense, who was always changing, but not always for the better, and a man whose foibles are as recognizable as his accomplishments are astounding.

(For instance, Chernow paints an indelible portrait of a young Colonel Washington, holed up in a half-assed garrison named Fort Necessity, surrounded by Indians and Frenchmen, but based on the letters to his superiors, mainly worried about his next promotion and pay raise).

Reading Chernow (who also wrote an excellent biography on Alexander Hamilton that – you may have heard – was turned into a musical of modest success) is the best of both worlds. His research, including primary source work, is extensive enough to satisfy those with an academic bent. At the same time, his writing style is open and accessible to any reader. Chernow even displays occasional flashes of wit. For instance, he quotes one of Washington’s diary entries in which Washington admitted to chopping down two cherry trees. (No joke! Maybe Parson Weems was onto something after all…)

The problems in Washington, slight as they are, stem mainly from the fact that this is a one-volume biography. Salman Rushdie once wrote, “To understand one life, you must swallow the world.” Obviously, one book, no matter how thick, isn’t going to do the trick. In Washington, this means there is a lot of glossing over certain aspects of Washington’s life. His family history, early childhood, and exploits during the French & Indian War are all dispensed with in less than 100 pages. It was the French & Indian War passages that were the most disappointing. Chernow’s rush to keep things moving turns Washington’s service into a career footnote. Washington’s ambush of the French diplomat Jumonville made him a chief instigator in starting a world war, while his actions at Fort Necessity and during the Braddock Massacre give us glimpses of the man – flawed yet great – that Washington would become. It is a shame more time couldn’t have been spent during this part of his life.

But that’s less a criticism than a reality of the confines of a one-volume work. There aren’t many multivolume biographers working any more (Robert Caro being one of the few). Gone are the days of Douglas Southall Freeman and William Manchester. With that faded art, though, you lose a lot of context. The wider world in which Washington lived and moved remains mostly in shadows. You will get no larger understanding of the French & Indian War or even the American Revolution. There is not even space for a single map of, say, the Battle of Princeton, one of Washington’s few battlefield victories. As a result, Washington’s actions often seem to take place within a vacuum. Furthermore, few secondary characters get fleshed out (the exception being Martha Washington). This creates a sort of rear-projection effect, like you see in old movies. Washington emerges as a three-dimensional character; however, everything around him is flat and two-dimensional.

This is not to say that Chernow doesn’t try to cover everything. He does. The consequence, however, is that this book is both too long and too short. Its density is amazing, and a bit like taking too big a bite of a great steak. It tastes good, but you have to be careful not to choke.

(Aside: an interesting thing I’ve noticed about one-volume biographies is that the author often fixates on a particular character quirk, and keeps returning to that quirk throughout the book. For Chernow, that quirk is Washington’s buying habits. Despite eliding portions of Washington’s military and political career, Chernow never misses an opportunity to quote portions of Washington’s bills-of-sale, showing his affinity for English clothes and furniture).

One tactic Chernow uses to deal with space limitations is a partially-thematic approach. While most of the events of Washington’s life are dealt with chronologically, Chernow devotes certain chapters to a single subject. Within these chapters, the timeline skips around. The most effective of these chapters deal with slavery (and are among the best chapters in the book). Washington’s views and actions with regards to slavery are fully covered. Chernow reveals a Washington who was a relatively kindly slave-owner, not given to excessive cruelty, who allowed his slaves a great deal of autonomy. At the same time, Chernow never lets you forget that kind or not, Washington owned people, and he shows time and again how ignorant Washington was of this fact (he and Martha were always surprised when slaves, rather than being grateful for their masters’ benevolence, ran away). Also explored is Washington’s private support for conditional termination of slavery, which butted against his public refusal to take that stand. (To his credit, Washington alone among the Founders manumitted his slaves upon his death).

The thematic approach is also used for Washington’s presidency, with chapters devoted to Washington’s domestic troubles, including his suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion, as well as foreign policy issues, mainly, the troubling turn of the French Revolution from an anti-monarchial movement to an orgiastic frenzy of beheadings.

Washington’s greatest contribution as president, of course, was setting a precedent for how the executive office should be handled. Here, Washington quelled the ambitions of his youth, and proceeded cautiously, unbelievably cognizant of the fact that everyone following after him would, in some measure, trace his footsteps. Though Washington never received formal education, Chernow shows him to be a political genius, and never more so than in his forward-looking belief in the potential greatness of America. Unlike Jefferson, he wasn’t going to settle for a loosely connected network of utopian farmers. He believed in a strong central government; though the Federalist party quickly died away, it is their vision that eventually survived (to be sure, a great measure of Federalist success can be traced back to John Marshall, who managed to rule the Supreme Court long after the Federalist Party went kaput).

The end of this biography, like the end of all good biographies, carries a certain amount of sadness. By the time Washington left office, he was being besieged by political enemies who were willing to accuse him of all manner of outrageous slander. Then, after only two years of retirement, Washington was stricken by an illness and died at Mount Vernon. In Chernow’s telling, Washington’s death may have been just one more example of the quackery and butchery of 18th and 19th century physicians condemning a man who might otherwise have survived. They not only bled Washington profusely, removing up to five pints (!) of blood, but they also gave the poor bastard an enema.

Today, George Washington is so woven into our historical fabric that it’s hard to believe he once walked the earth. A book like this, with descriptions of very human foibles, sartorial concerns, rotting teeth and enemas, reminds you that Washington was a man. But that’s what makes the story great. It is a small thing for a god to accomplish these tasks. Far harder is it to believe that a relatively smalltime Virginia planter with a bit of ambition, a bit of grit, and an incredible strength of spirit, managed to shepherd a bloody revolution and hold together an infant nation.

Ultimately, Washington was a great man. Not great in the glib, modern sense. Not great in the way we might describe our buddies: George is a great guy and a really chill hang!

No, he was great in the sense that he towered over his age, and bent history like it was a blade of grass. He was not without his flaws – his participation in the enslavement of his fellow man being one of several – but he helped create something lasting. In point of fact, he helped to create a nation in which his legacy could be furiously and passionately debated for all time.
Profile Image for Jerome Otte.
1,745 reviews
October 30, 2012
I generally don't like biographies, but, knowing little of Washington save for his French and Indian War and Revolutionary War exploits, and not having heard anything bad about Chernow's biography, I figured I might as well learn something.

Why should you read this book when you think that you know all you need to about George Washington? I think that you should because this book is wonderful, both in the writing and in the level of detail. Chernow is a wonderful writer. As with his other biographies, Chernow gives us a picture that goes beyond a stiff formal portrait. He gives us, what I consider to be, a fair picture of Washington, with his faults clearly delineated as well as his positive attributes. Here is not the Washington promoted to a saint-like status, rather a man who made the most of all the opportunities that came his way. A man who was not above ordering gold braid and a red sash for his uniform, and a man who took offense at slights (although when necessary held his anger to himself) and a man who bristled when he was appointed to a military rank that he felt was too low. However, he was also a man who learned by his mistakes (and Chermow points out a lot of them) and was above all; courageous, conscientious, honest, and hard working. He shows Washington the man - a man who felt handicapped by his lack of a college education, a man with a volatile temperament that he kept tightly under control, a man who could lead men but found himself leading untrained and undisciplined ones. He shows Washington to be human, a man who "... adopted a blistering style whenever he thought someone had cheated him". Most of all he shows a Washington who prevented the dissolution of the army during the war and whose actions defined the presidency of the US. One of Chernow's objectives was to show that Washington made his own decisions, after consultation with those whose opinions he respected, and contrary to the charge made by his enemies was not controlled by men like Hamilton.

What I found most interesting were the discussions of those aspects of Washington's life that are generally not covered in one-volume biographies. He discusses the economic factors that eventually turned Washington against Britain. Chernow discusses Washington the businessman (both as a planter and a land speculator) and his dealings with his London agents. Contrary to popular myth, Chernow shows Washington to be land rich but cash poor, frequently to the extent of being on the brink of economic disaster. Chernow devotes two chapters (and parts of others) to the issue of slavery. He makes it clear that Washington did not like the institution, but he viewed his slaves as an investment that he did not know how to dispense with without bring about his economic ruin. Furthermore, he unrealistically expected his slaves to act more like employees or soldiers and could not understand why some did not, or why some ran away.

Remarkably, Chernow makes Washington come alive without sacrificing details. My touchstone for a biography on Washington is the extent to which it covers his family, particularly his brothers. Flexner's one volume condensation of his four-volume biography of Washington mentions George's older half-brothers, but not his older half-sister or his younger full brothers and sisters. Chernow mentions them all. He also clears up the story of how George acquired Mt. Vernon, and how it got its name. Chernow also discusses Washington's difficult relationship with his mother, a subject generally not covered in other one-volume biographies. The book also discusses such diverse topics as Washington's teeth, his height, and many of his illnesses.

As another main theme, Chernow tries to debunk the image of Washington as a cold, unfeeling, stoic, marble-like statue, simply doing right by his country. Washington's ambition shines through the pages, especially early in his life. Moreover, Chernow posits that Washington was a man of powerful emotion, often bubbling barely beneath the surface, and overflowing much more frequently that history generally notes. Those emotions ranged from seething anger to tender care for his extended and adopted family, and his army. Chernow does not ascribe Washington's greatness to these twin personas - stoic and yet temperamental - but he does suggest the tension was a driving force in Washington's life. His revelation of the emotional dimensions of Washington's life gave me a new understanding of Washington, and a new appreciation of his complexities.

For example, Washington was not a military genius. Washington’s missteps revealed failings as a strategist. No one understood his limitations better than Washington himself who, on the eve of the New York campaign in 1776, confessed to Congress his “want of experience to move on a large scale” and his “limited and contracted knowledge . . . in Military Matters." Rather, the “secret” to Washington’s excellence lay in his completeness, in how he united the military, political, and personal skills necessary to lead a nation in war and peace. Despite being an “imperfect commander”(and at times even a tactically suspect one)Washington nevertheless possessed the requisite combination of vision, integrity, talents, and good fortune to lead America to victory in its war for independence.

This is a complete biography of George Washington. It is divided into six parts, covering his entire life. In contrast, some biographies only cover part of his life. For instance, Willard Sterne Randall's biography of Washington focuses almost entirely on the revolutionary war. Chernow covers everything, devoting almost equal space to Washington's presidency as to his leadership of the army. The book contains 30 black and white photographs of paintings of individuals, printed on high gloss paper. The quality of the photographs is good, but lacks the color of the originals, which is unfortunate.

I think that there are two caveats that a potential reader should be aware of. This is not a detailed military history - there are no maps or detailed discussions of tactics. It is more about the man and how he handled the problems of the war, than a history of the war itself. Neither is this book a political treatise on the Washington presidency. Chernow does, however, show how Washington, by his actions, created the presidency. For instance,Chernow shows how Washington changed the Senate's constitutional requirement of "advise and consent" to consent for actions he took. One should not take these caveats as an indication that the book was not excellent or is incomplete. It is just that there is a limit to what one can put into a single volume, even with more than 800 pages of text. Furthermore, this is a book about Washington's whole life, written for a general audience. In this it succeeds admirably.
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,685 followers
October 22, 2018
Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.
- George Washington


My first exposure to Chernow was his now über-famous biography. My daughter owns her own copy of Chernow's Alexander Hamilton and just today showed me Chernow rapping "Alexander Hamilton" dressed in the show's distinctive revolutionary garb for #Ham4Ham. We were lucky enough to see Hamilton in NYC.

So, now, after President Trump's election, I'm finding spiritual solace in reading a book-a-day (at least in January) and trying to read at least one presidential biography a month (this month I read two, this one and Caro's The Path to Power, LBJ #1). I need to be reminded that, yes, politics has always been nasty AND -- yes -- this too will pass.

Anyway, while I didn't like the George Washington bio QUITE as much as I enjoyed Chernow's Hamilton bio, it might have been for reasons beyond Chernow's control. I've read a bunch of Washington biographies and there isn't much that I haven't come across, or at least knew if not in form certainly by shadow. There wasn't much here that was surprising, but as a biography it was compelling. Chernow did a masterful job of threading throughout the biography certain Washington traits and contradictions, the biggest being his views on slavery, and his treatment of slaves. The fact that Chernow didn't write a hagiography but was trying to paint a full picture of our first president was obvious. As far as biographies of Washington go, this one beats Ellis' His Excellency: George Washington by "a large and straight rather than prominent" nose.

Chernow is technically more of a journalist than a historian, but in this age of modern biographies there is certainly room for the self-taught. In many ways, journalists often produce fantastic biographies since they often have a distinct narrative talent. That doesn't mean Chernow isn't historically rigorous in his historical efforts. Many of the primary sources are ones I hadn't read before, or were ones used in a different context. So, while I don't think Chernow writes as well as Robert Caro, he still belongs on the top shelf of living presidential biographers.


Finally, Chernow writes primarily about banking families and American biographies:

Chernow's Banking Dynasties:
1. Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. - ★★★★
2. The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance - ★★★★
3. The Warburgs: The Twentieth-Century Odyssey of a Remarkable Jewish Family - ★★★★

Chernow's American Political Biographies:
1. Alexander Hamilton - ★★★★★
2. Washington: A Life - ★★★★★
3. Grant - ★★★★★

Upon reviewing my reviews, I'm convinced Chernow does slightly better at writing histories of individuals rather than families; politics rather than finance. However, I should note, I've enjoyed ALL of his books and he's a master at his craft.
Profile Image for Darlene.
370 reviews132 followers
February 19, 2011
I have been a political junkie for most of my life. I realized, however, that outside of the presidents in my lifetime, I have little or no knowledge of the earlier presidents. My goal is to read a biography of every president (if possible). I started with this one.. Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. It is a tome.. over 800 pages but I am so happy I stuck with it.Outside of the folklore, I realized I knew nothing of the person who was George Washington. This book changed that for me. Chernow's extensive research and his wonderful writing made Washington come alive for me. He became a real flesh and blood person.

I think, though, that the most important thing I learned from this book was actually not even about Washington himself. I learned that from the beginning of our republic, politics has always been contentious, nasty, full of jealousies and name calling. The only difference between then and now is that today, we have the internet which makes the transmission of all of this hostility instantaneous. This knowledge both depresses me and heartens me at the same time. It makes me feel that perhaps the current toxic political climate does NOT signal the decline of our country... as I had been fearing.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who really wants to get a sense of George Washington , the man as well as the the first President of the United States. I could describe many interesting facts that I learned but I believe that Mr. Chernow summed it up far better than I ever could.... "By the time of his death, Washington had poured his last ounce of passion into the creation of this country. Never a perfect man, he always had a normal quota of human frailty, including a craving for money, status and fame"...... "But over the years, this man of deep emotions and strong opinions had learned to subordinate his personal dreams and aspirations to the service of a larger cause"...... "In the things that mattered most for his country, he had shown himself capable of constant growth and self-improvement." (p812)

What greater thing can a human being hope to achieve in a lifetime? Fantastic book about a truly admirable person... flaws and all.
Profile Image for Tim.
133 reviews56 followers
July 30, 2022
Ron Chernow does a great job uncovering the man from the legend. I now have a firmer understanding of what is accomplishments were, as well as his failures. Chernow also paints a vivid picture of what he was like as a person and what drove him, which was especially challenging given Washington’s quiet stoicism.

What was he like?

Chernow describes his maturity, ambition and self-control, which enabled him to become a militia commander in the French and Indian war when he was just 21 years old. While his performance as a tactician was mixed, his leadership abilities, bravery, honesty, and fairness earned him increasing amounts of respect and more leadership opportunities. When he was appointed as Commander-in-Chief of the Colonial Army in 1775, he was only 42 years old, but with a wealth of experience.

There seemed to be a reoccurring pattern in Washington’s life. His maturity and leadership abilities kept pushing him into greater positions of responsibility. But he always had a high sense of self-awareness of his own deficiencies, so he would be very insecure that he has what it takes to succeed. But this insecurity seemed to be in the right dosage – not enough to dampen his confidence, but enough to motivate him to work incredibly hard, pushing himself to the limits of his abilities. He didn’t always succeed but had high enough levels of performance and personal conduct, as well as the ability to learn from his mistakes, to continue to advance.

His success was not driven by intelligence, creativity, self-confidence, or unchecked ambition for power. It was driven by other attributes that are harder to define and measure. He was not an intellectual but read enough to have a good working knowledge of many topics, giving him the confidence to evaluate his advisors' opinions. He was a great listener. He treated people fairly. He was honest. He understood how to motivate people.

Washington as a General

One of the highlights was reading about the crossing of the Delaware. It was an incredibly risky strategy, with nothing short of the fate of the revolution in the balance. Chernow tells the tale masterfully. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, and normally military history isn’t one of my favorite topics.

Chernow takes Washington to task for several tactical mistakes, and I got the impression of him being mediocre in this area. His brilliance as a General was more for his leadership qualities. He inspired his men to stay resolute even when they were in desperate conditions with the odds against them.

Washington as President

As President, Chernow describes Washington as someone who was comfortable delegating authority, and not getting involved in the details. But he was forceful and clear about the decisions that were his responsibility. He carefully deliberated while making decisions, but assertively acted without regret once a decision was made. Over the last year or so I’ve also read biographies on Grant and Eisenhower, two other successful Generals-turned-President, and there seem to be a lot of similarities in temperament and leadership styles.

The Washington Chernow writes about seems to have sound judgment, maturity, big picture thinking, and a selfless love for his country. He also had tremendous political skills, managing dicey situations with fragile egos skillfully.

He had the ability to motivate and inspire his team in subtle ways. I found it amusing the way people would keep track of how letters from him were addressed, hoping for an upgrade from “Sir” to “Dear Sir”, or even better “My Dear Sir”.

It is interesting that as skilled of a politician he was, his relationships with many in his administration eventually soured, such as with Jefferson, Adams, and Knox. Though in each of these cases, the fault doesn’t seem to lie with Washington.

And of course, he set the precedent that Presidents should decline opportunities for more power if it is not in the best interests of the nation. I think this alone is enough to celebrate Washington.

Washington as a Slave Owner

I think each of our Founding Fathers should have a reckoning for how they handled the issue of slavery. Many may have a view of Washington as being personally benevolent, but politically passive on this issue. That’s probably the best case you can make for him. However, Chernow’s book makes me think even this half-hearted defense falls short.

There are a few facts this book brought out. First, Washington had missed opportunities to express support for the gradual emancipation of slaves, such as a Virginia petition in 1785 he declined to sign. In the case of the more radical Quakers, he harshly criticized their efforts at abolitionism. Second, while his treatment of slaves was probably “better than average” it should still be kept in mind that there were whippings and brutal labor conditions. Washington demanded his slaves, most of them field workers, to work from dusk to dawn six days a week. Third, he doggedly pursued runaways.

Consider the story of Ona Judge, who was enslaved as Martha Washington’s maid. Judge escaped, which made Washington angry, believing he was betrayed. After Washington’s men located Judge, she agreed to come back if she was granted her freedom after the Washingtons’ deaths. But Washington refused even this condition and continued to pursue her capture. He did stipulate that he wanted the capture to happen discreetly, as he did not want to be embarrassed by the situation – which shows that abolitionist sentiments were common at the time and Washington was no stranger to them.

Of course, the Washingtons did free 160 slaves upon their deaths. While this might seem like a “the least he could do” situation, Washington did work tirelessly when making his will to ensure that the younger slaves were also provided for, including education and trade skills. He also made sure the language was tight enough to prevent any loopholes. Very few of his southern planter peers can say they did as much.

How to Put this all Together

How do you make sense of someone whose legacy is mixed like this? I don’t think you can say “well he gets a score of X on non-slavery issues and Y on slavery, so his overall score is Z”. I don’t know how to combine all this stuff. I think all you can say is just that multiple things are true about George Washington. He was a slaver who actively perpetuated slavery. He also built a strong foundation for America during a fragile time and set the tone with a standard of personal conduct and humility that inspired other leaders for centuries.
Profile Image for Matt.
3,718 reviews12.8k followers
August 18, 2015
After reading a fictional series set throughout the U.S. War of Independence, I became highly curious about some of its key actors. The first such individual is George Washington, known as the general who led the troops to victory and became the Republic's first president. However, as Ron Chernow seeks to illustrate in his tome, little is actually known about Washington beyond his general persona. Chernow posits that many short and superficial biographies have been written, which offer only a shallow glimpse into the man and his life. Other pieces span volumes and are likely too dense or detailed to be of much use to the general public. For Americans and history buffs alike, this single-volume work offers a comprehensive look at Washington as it weaves along a narrative from cradle to grave. The tome highlights numerous aspects of Washington's life, as Chernow presents a man in six periods of his life, generally told in a chronology easy to digest. As Chernow has undertaken my usual style of finding themes in the individual on discussion, I will analyse this book from a different angle; whether it provides key pillars to a strong biography. A truly powerful biography ought to encompass strong views of the individual throughout their life, give flowing connection through historical happenings, and offer a collection of anecdotes little known to the reader for synthesis. Chernow accomplishes this on many levels and makes the story one of both education and pure entertainment. George Washington is no simple man, which Chernow accentuates effectively while presenting his findings from years of research. A piece not only deserving of attention for its detail, but its presentation that permits the general public to digest with ease.

Chernow does a fabulous job in illustrating George Washington as a person, from cradle to grave. As mentioned above, the tome is divided into six areas of Washington's life, with thorough discussion at each point, which offers the reader a foundation on which to build the greater story. While little is known about Washington's youth, Chernow sifts through documents to create a fluid narrative and presents it to the reader, alongside some key aspects to his family life, particularly the relationship held with Mary Ball Washington, his ornery mother. From there, the reader learns much about Washington's service to the Crown in the French and Indian Wars, as well as early public service in the House of Burgesses and the rebellious side, as Britain began abusing its colonial residents. Chernow takes much pleasure in painting a picture of Washington outside of his titled roles, including the struggles with slavery as a landowner and the perils of the heart related to loves lost and his eventual marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis. From the outset, Washington did not imagine himself a leader or political figure, though he wrestled the reins of power away from others and led the Continental Army into battle, as well as pushing the colonial political body through tough measures once the War of Independence had been completed. The road to the presidency was also one Washington did not expect to travel, going so far as to bow out of public life, only to be coaxed back to the forefront. He served to shape the nation, then led it along its newly crafted rulebook (the Constitution) for two terms. Thereafter, there was little left for him but final retirement at Mount Vernon. Chernow creates major arcs in the tome and keeps the reader in the fray as these transformations took place, highlighting the complexity and varied nature of George Washington.

While Washington the man stands firmly supported in the text, it is the connecting pieces, which act as historical ribbons, that keep the narrative moving effectively. Chernow does not parachute the reader into six areas of Washington's life, but offers a hands-on approach to the entire history that was Washington. The length of the tome speaks to the detail in which Chernow invests in the story, offering powerful linkages and curious tales. Detailed discussions surrounding Washington's early years in the Virginia backcountry, exploring the Indian lands, serve as a wonderful backdrop when it comes to the wars that Britain waged on the first inhabitants of America. Additionally, countless pages of backstory on the rise to rebellion and early military skirmishes help provide the reader with an omnipresent view of life on the battlefield. Washington struggled as well as conquered, something that cannot be downplayed. Even with the War complete, building the independent country took hard work and decisive action, all of which is accounted for within the biography. One cannot forget the two terms that Washington served as president, nor the daily struggles he had as he forged into unknown areas and sought to serve effectively. Chernow uses these, and many other historical events to weave together a narrative that leaves little doubt in the reader's mind that the author did his due diligence.

No biography can truly hold its weight if it does not shine a light on some of the lesser-known events in an individual's life. Chernow uses his research to present these sorts of facts throughout the tome. Numerous discussions arose surrounding Washington and his dental issues. While many might be aware of the dentures he wore (actually hippopotamus or walrus ivory and NOT wood), that he sought to have the extracted teeth of others (slaves, mostly) embedded in his gums as a first effort should provide early scintillating news that the reader will take away from the tome. Also, the struggles with statue and bust creation proved highly amusing and time consuming to Washington and those around him. Even the degree of detail into which Washington sought to create the ideal constitution cannot be lost. While Washington had many public feats about which history books overflow, smaller nuggets also prove highly entertaining for the reader and pace the narrative to keep details from dragging down the flow.

Chernow addresses a number of significant themes in the tome that cannot go unmentioned. While slavery and slave owning were common practice in the 18th century, Washington struggled with this, at times. Nowhere near a great emancipator, Washington saw such labour as essential as he cultivated crops and sought to keep his household afloat. He did, however, struggle with how to move forward, within his own lands as well as on a larger scale, but never firms up a policy, for which Lincoln paid a price decades later. Another of the key themes is, predictably, the creation of the constitutional document and the Bill of Rights. The stories surrounding these two documents are highly captivating, at least for a political scientist like myself, and should prove highly intriguing to the reader. As if sitting in the rooms, Chernow allows the reader to see some of the Founding Fathers present their ideas and thoughts related to the creation of the Republic, while tossing aside some of the parliamentary or British precedents so familiar to colonial statehouses. Included therein is the debate around federalism, state rights, as well as the split between the executive and legislative branches of government. Such foundation material comes off the page and allows the reader to understand in a way no generic textbook can offer. Pure historical and biographical gold on pages throughout this piece.

George Washington was a complicated man, so varied and unique that one book could not hope to shepherd it together. Chernow does a masterful job of bringing sources together, first hand accounts of happenings, and justifies much of what he has written with solid arguments. Was Washington the greatest man ever to walk the hallowed roads surrounding the Potomac? Likely not, but Chernow makes an effective argument that his simple life and passion to shed the chains of colonial oppression are key factors in how those United States of America came to fruition.

Kudos do not seem enough to offer you, Mr. Chernow. Your masterful storytelling has left me wanting more and places you alongside Robert A. Caro and David McCullough.

Like/hate the review? An ever-growing collection of others appears at:
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,194 reviews9,455 followers
July 17, 2021
This was a vast life and this is a vast book. You get to feel that every dinner GW ate is itemised and every outfit he ever wore is lovingly described. There are long stretches of GW’s life during which he was a middling-prosperous gentleman farmer. These months and years get just as much attention as the revolution and the eight years of being the first president. Ron Chernow is unhurried. He will get to the various cataclysms in his own good time.

Ron is at pains to tell us how unfair it is that GW has often been portrayed as a stuffed shirt pompous waxwork dummy but as some of these less dramatic years pass by with glacial speed, well, he doesn’t come across as the guy you would want to have a beer and a game of darts with.


He always, always looked the part - over six feet tall and strong as an ox. You may not think looking the part is such a big deal but this is emphasised over and again. And he was rock solid. There was never going to be a scandal involving George Washington. He made Americans look in the mirror and like what they saw. Ron says :

His fortitude in keeping the impoverished Continental Army intact was a major historical accomplishment. It always stood on the brink of dissolution, and Washington was the one figure who kept it together, the spiritual and managerial genius of the whole enterprise… He was that rare general who was great between battles and not just during them

And he became a living god to Americans when, having won the War of Independence, he retired gracefully back to his farm. They thought that was just amazing.

By the way, a crucial point about the American Revolution is that it was

The historical anomaly of a revolution inaugurated by affluent, conservative leaders


On page 437 we gloomily read “in the eyes of posterity his dental problems rank among his best-known attributes”. On the following page we read that GW became a convert to “transplanted teeth” and “bought nine teeth in 1784 from certain nameless Negroes for thirteen shillings apiece” (approximately £80 or $110). Ron adds :

Whether he wanted the teeth implanted directly in his mouth or incorporated into dentures, we cannot say. However ghoulish this trade sounds to modern readers, it was then standard practice for rich people to purchase teeth from the poor.


One of the most interesting strands that run through this book is the terrible issue of slavery. Ron says

Washington’s opposition to slavery took the form of a gradual awakening over many decades.

Ron explains the common contradiction of many rich farmers including GW – they were opposed to the slave trade, but not opposed to owning slaves. (Modern readers may think that wasn’t a distinction worth making.) And if any slave ran away, they were of course most assiduous in recapturing him. Their attitude was – slaves were imposed on us by the evil British, we never asked for them, this is a terrible burden for us. But of course the idea of freeing the slaves was quite insane. Ron sums up GW’s contradictions :

For all his rhetorical objections to slavery, Washington found it impossible to wean himself away from the income it produced. Habituated to profligate spending and a baronial lifestyle, he was in no position to act forcefully on his principled opposition to slavery until the very end of his life


He suffered from a conceptual blind spot about slavery, tending to regard it as a fair economic exchange : he clothed and fed his workers, and “in return, I expect such labor as they ought to render”. He could never seem to understand why his slaves might regard this tacit bargain as preposterous.

I found the following convoluted state of affairs very remarkable . At the beginning of the Revolutionary War the British commander Lord Dunmore announced the formation of the Royal Ethiopian Regiment. All slaves who escaped and joined this regiment would be freed. Their uniforms had “Liberty to Slaves” stitched across them. GW hated Lord Dunmore with a passion, called him a monster and “arch-traitor to the rights of humanity”. Meaning the rights of the slave owners. But he very soon accepted free black men into the Continental Army and ended up at the head of “the most integrated American fighting force before the Vietnam War”.


I should have chosen a shorter GW biography, this was way too much. This grand biography is for those who just don’t accept there could ever be a fact about George Washington that isn’t worth knowing.
147 reviews26 followers
December 4, 2018
In early 2017, in an effort to numb myself to the clown show, I began a quest to read a biography of each President .... in order, one through 44. I wanted to immerse myself in Presidential history by selecting a good, well reviewed biography on each one. So, after extensive research I selected this one about George Washington to start. It is long and has fine print. Six months of eye problems and eye surgery slowed me down.
I am glad I persevered. This book is very detailed and well written. I absolutely understand why he is called the Father of Our Country. Great man. Very disciplined.
But, at this rate and at my age, I doubt that I will be around to read #45. Oh, darn.
Profile Image for Paula W.
355 reviews70 followers
June 27, 2017
It was long. It was extremely well-researched and very detailed. Did I say it was long? It was really long. It was also brilliant. Before reading this, I knew the basic things everyone knows about George Washington. Now I know that he wasn't always this god that we think he was. He was ambivalent about slavery, made some fairly bad decisions, and spent much of his time dealing with his own insecurities (imposter syndrome?) In short, George Washington was an imperfect human just like the rest of us. This imperfect human, however, helped build a country. I can barely build something with Legos. High-five, George.
Chernow knocked this biography out of the park.
Profile Image for Joe.
1,017 reviews29 followers
March 5, 2014
This is book six (I think) in my "Joe reads at least one book about every President" challenge. This one was a beast at 928 pages but well worth it. What I knew about George Washington before this book you could fit in a thimble. I only knew all the stuff they teach to little kids: He couldn't tell a lie, chopped down a cherry tree, threw something across a river at some point (I guess), wooden teeth and something about Valley Forge. That, and everything Dan Brown "taught" me in "The Lost Symbol."

Needless to say, all of those "facts" were lies and I knew nothing about George Washington.

This was a very interesting book. When it is all said and done you feel like you really know the man, not just the facts. One minor quibble: the most boring part of the book for me was the Revolutionary War section, which was unfortunately (but appropriately) huge. I don't know, I guess I'm just not a war story guy. I read these books for the history and the politics not for battle strategy. However, I'm sure those parts were fine and the problem lies with me and not the book.

I loved learning about Washington's complicated stance on Slavery. At various times he seemed for it, than against it, than for it, than he freed his slaves...but not until his wife died. The one thing I look for when reading about folks during this time period in regards to Slavery is, did their stance on this issue improve over their lifetime. I'm satisfied that Washington's did, so he gets at least some credit. (For a President that fails this test, look up my review on American Lion. Lets just say that Andrew Jackson failed this test.)

Washington's complicated relationships with women was fascinating. He clearly loved the ladies but had a tremendous amount of self-control. I mean, the first President could have scored just about anybody but there is no indication that Washington was ever unfaithful to Martha, who was his closest friend and confidant.

I also loved that his mother was the WORST! Until the day she died, she was unimpressed by the fact that her son was President and never thought he gave her enough. It clearly drove Washington up the wall. Awesomesauce.

I truly believe that Washington was the perfect man to be the first President. All the other founding fathers were so opinionated and bombastic that it is unclear if the young nation could have survived any of them in those critical first eight years. Washington was defined by his self-control. He had a fierce temper, but kept it in check. He was occasionally betrayed but didn't use this as an excuse to fail. He could have been king but was humble enough to know that such a decision wouldn't be best for the nation.

I have a new found respect for the man and am now actually excited about reading the other founding fathers biographies, especially Thomas Jefferson. They did NOT get along and now that I've read the Washington side, I can't wait to read Jefferson's.

This is a must read but be warned, the length can be daunting (that's what she said) so take breaks as you go. It will truly transform Washington from an idea into a man. Given how long ago these events occurred, that is an impressive feat.
Profile Image for Creighton.
76 reviews12 followers
March 21, 2023
First, I want to say that I truly enjoyed this book, it was stellar, and the ending left me awestruck, and I mean I was awestruck at how wonderful this book was. I have always looked on George Washington as a great human being, and I've always saw him as someone to look for guidance in life. I find that this book left me with a great admiration for the man, and I can say that right next Winston Churchill, I consider this man another hero of mine. This book brought Washington to life and took him out of that marble like character he has been portrayed as having in our perception of him. Washington had emotions like us, he had his failings, and his imperfect qualities make him more human and more admirable to me because he was able to adopt many stoic qualities in his life. The fact he had the chance to be a monarch, or a dictator, but he always sought to avoid greed, ambition, and to me he comes off as a selfless figure. Washington was bridge between the politics of Colonial America and those of the later populists like Andrew Jackson.

I definitely recommend this book for those who want to study about Washington, or are interested in the American Revolution. You won't be displeased
Profile Image for Alex.
214 reviews34 followers
July 4, 2022
Magnificent. Simply magnificent.

I spent nearly three months reading this, which is not abnormal for me since I have several books going at any given time, but with these long ones there is often a moment when I face the Swamp of Despair. It's that lull in the middle of a book when the novelty of breaking port has worn off and the destination is still a distant shore. This time the slog never came. Nearly 700 pages in, I read a chapter that felt as fresh as the first—all sense of where I was in the book and how long I had been reading it disappeared. This might be in part because George's life makes for the perfect biographical structure, slicing neatly into three phases—his military years, his estate years, his political years—but surely it's also a testament to Chernow's abilities as a writer.

Something I hadn't truly appreciated before reading this was that George wasn't just the first President, but he invented the presidency. Much of the pageantry of the Presidential office is thanks to George—things like the Inauguration Ceremony, or the State of the Union Address. And George did those things the way he did them because, well, that's the way he decided to do them. It wasn't just matters of decorum either. There were decisions that to be made for which there was no precedent. Who has power here, Congress or the President? George made a decision. Now there was a precedent. And many of those judgments persist as American policy and procedure today.

One thing I admired about Chernow is that he kept the camera interminably trained on George. In a period of epoch-shaping events and colossus personalities, it would be easy to lose focus. Chernow never does. This is a book about George. And paradoxically, perhaps the best thing I can say about it is that I came away completely unsure of who George was as a person. His character and contributions to world history are known (relatively well) and rightly revered. He's been lionized to a point that it seems it would be sacrilege to merely question, let alone criticize, him or his legacy in even the smallest regard. But he was a hard man. He was temperamental and often gave vent to his temperaments. He exercised corporal punishment on soldiers and slaves, and verbal punishment on political antagonists and allies alike. He was unscrupulous in business dealings, and despite the comportment of humble servitude fronted by a charming aura of stoicism, I cannot shake the thought that much of his suave self-abasement in the political arena was actually a masterclass in ruthless self-advancement by a politically-ambitious politician supremely gifted in the art of politics.

And that's why my ambivalence about George is a compliment to Chernow. He's fair. He presents both sides of his subject. He clearly holds a favorable opinion of George, but he doesn't foist it upon us. (The one area where he made a hard sell was in trying to convince us of George's moral repulsion to slavery. Despite Chernow's best efforts to portray George as internally conflicted over the issue, I found it difficult to buy given his sustained pattern of behavior that carried all the way through the end of his life. But again, to Chernow's credit, he doesn't hide that behavior.)

The contradictions are all part of George's mystique. He was an enigma even to those in his day. He was beloved by many. He was decried by many. And in a definitively sad note, his sharp words would sever relationships with many once-close friends—Jefferson, Madison, Knox, Adams. If a modern author were to write a biography that leaves the impression of a clear-cut figure, it would smack of inauthenticity. Not so here. I'm baffled by George. And to be baffled by George is to know him.
Profile Image for Lyndsey.
342 reviews4 followers
May 19, 2016
41 hours and 54 minutes later, I am finished. 3.5 stars.

This biography was fascinating and definitely comprehensive. (I know more about Washington's dental troubles than I need to, really).

It was great on audio because it didn't allow me to get bogged down in the details, but by listening to this to and from work for seven weeks, I feel a have a really good general sense of this man and his vital role in the formation of our country. I'm sure I won't retain good recall of details, but I've become okay with reading non-fiction this way. I've never going to remember and learn everything.

Between this and my obsessive listening to the Hamilton soundtrack. I fell down a real serious Revolutionary rabbit hole there for awhile. It's been great. It's good, in this time of political turmoil, to remember that the foundation of our country was pretty much turmoil incarnate.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,734 reviews1,469 followers
May 2, 2013
From Pulitzer-prize winner Ron Chernow, a landmark biography of George Washington:

“In Washington: A Life” celebrated biographer Ron Chernow provides a richly nuanced portrait of the father of our nation. With a breadth and depth matched by no other one-volume life of Washington, this crisply paced narrative carries the reader through his troubled boyhood, his precocious feats in the French and Indian War, his creation of Mount Vernon, his heroic exploits with the Continental Army, his presiding over the Constitutional Convention, and his magnificent performance as America's first president.

Despite the reverence his name inspires, Washington remains a lifeless waxwork for many Americans, worthy but dull……

These are not my words, but rather the beginning of the book description at Goodreads. I agree that Chernow’s work has great depth, but Washington remains for me more a man worthy of admiration than a man for whom I can empathize. Intellectually I followed what he could have thought, but I never truly saw what he saw through his eyes. He is not dull, but still he is not someone I really know. I have learned very much about his actions and beliefs and both his successes and failures. A good biographer must present a balanced view, and Chernow clearly presents Washington’s mistakes. I appreciate this and feel I have learned so very much from the book due to the author’s prodigious study of all available source material. I do highly recommend this book.

BUT, I still have some complaints, and it is for the points stated below that I have removed one star:

The book is thorough – that can be seen as both a compliment and as a criticism, and often this depends upon the reader’s own previous knowledge. The more you know the more interesting other subjects become……I found the chapters related to the military details excessive. I felt that the text was at times repetitive, and that too many examples were cited to prove what perhaps Washington was thinking. I followed the numerous examples cited by the author and sometimes in fact came to a different conclusion! Although Chernow always states positive and negative aspects, he clearly tries to make you, the reader, accept the author’s personal view. Adjectives chosen to describe Washington’s conduct clearly express the author’s subjective point of view. Time after time, we are told that Washington “must have” thought this or that….Well, I would think, maybe! I looked at Washington’s choices throughout his life and frequently arrived at different motivations for his actions.

There are many quotes in the book. Chernow often mimics the expressions used by Washington and his contemporaries, and this makes his own text rather verbose and at times even stilted. I would have preferred a more fluid presentation. I quite simply was at times not pleased with how the author expressed himself. At times it was pompous, stiff and too adulatory.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Scott Brick. The narration is clear and has an appropriate tempo for a book where the listener wants to have time to absorb the historical facts. However there is a tone of awe which unnecessarily increases the adulatory words of the author.

After reading this book, when I look at Washington what I primarily admire him for is his ability to unite people - his soldiers fighting in the French and Indian War and then the Revolutionary War, the divergent groups in the thirteen colonies each with different focal interests, then when he became president the emerging political parties, the Federalists versus the Republicans, and most importantly the Abolitionists and slave owners. He is aptly seen as one of the Founding Fathers of a nation and a government based on democracy and freedom. While the French Revolution led to a regime of terror, the American Revolution didn’t. Washington, idolized as he was, could have so easily slid into becoming a monarch himself, but he didn’t. He truly believed in democracy and freedom!

In my view, this belief in freedom leads directly to the question: how do you create a nation based on freedom if it also allows slavery? Washington’s view on slavery is ambivalent. He says one thing and he does another, over and over again. In that Washington in his will finally emancipated his own slaves, although NOT his dower slaves, the author will have us believe that Washington finally followed his moral inclination, whereas I more crassly feel he emancipated them because they had had become uneconomical, burdensome and cumbersome to manage. He also feared the possibility of slave revolts which had erupted in Haiti.

When will we be able to look at Washington freed of our need to see him as a hero and paragon of virtue. I admire what he succeeded to accomplish. I never really got to know who he was inside though. This is not necessarily a criticism of the author. Washington did not reveal his inner thoughts readily to others.

Profile Image for Jim.
181 reviews34 followers
December 29, 2019
#1 Best Book I Read in 2018

Ron Chernow doesn’t really write biographies. He writes American history through the eyes of the person he’s writing about. This is his second American Revolution-era book, and the first one was based around Hamilton. I think I liked this one better, just because Washington was right in the thick of everything important happening. But they are both great.

Washington founded the country and then kept that country together through its difficult infancy. He did it while up against the British army, terrible health, rocky personal finances, and traitors (Benedict Arnold, but also Thomas Jefferson and James Madison).

Washington wasn’t perfect, and Chernow shows you how much of a hero he actually was without doing the whole “man of his era” nonsense people do to explain away the slavery issue. Slavery could have been ended 80 years before it was (Christians were already fighting it), and only Washington could have accomplished it.

That’s a good example of why Chernow is so good. He wipes away all the myth and hagiography about the founding of our country. But in his hands, the truth (though sometimes inconvenient) is just as fascinating.
Profile Image for Cinda.
Author 51 books11.1k followers
September 10, 2018
I've been feasting on history lately, with this the latest course. At 817 pages, this book isn't for everyone, but having read Chernow's Hamilton, Vidal's Burr, Gordon-Reed's The Hemingses of Monticello, Ambrose's Undaunted Courage, I chose to fill in this chasm in my knowledge of the early republic. As always, the truth is more complex and nuanced than legend. People who claim to love this country should invest more time in the study of its history.
Profile Image for Julie  Durnell.
1,011 reviews96 followers
December 2, 2021
A daunting read for the length of the book, but it was written in an engaging manner that left me with great insight to our Founding Father. Extremely well researched with an extensive bibliography.
Profile Image for Emily.
92 reviews6 followers
May 18, 2022
Chernow here has achieved a masterstroke of a biography in bringing Washington to life so clearly that by the end of this book, I was sad to leave him behind, as though he'd become a close friend. Chernow deftly weaves together the multiple strands of his life: often, biographers specialize in a specific area - the military arena, or the political - but fumble the other portions of a subject's life, most often their emotions. Chernow, though, has done an exquisite job unpacking Washington's emotional life, which is perhaps the great achievement of this book. Throughout his life, Washington always struggled to improve himself, always worked hard to master a mercurial temper, and Chernow weaves this thread of work for emotional mastery throughout the narrative. There are other great themes - most especially, Washington's attitude towards slavery, his marriage, his shaky belief in his own refinement, his superb athleticism. The peripheral characters here come to life, especially Martha Washington, and of course, since this is Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, who is every bit the brilliant scribbling hothead we know.

Washington was far from perfect. As a general, he was very often an abject failure. The narrative of the Revolutionary War reads like a list of losses followed by losses. His judgment, especially as a general, was often fallible - terribly fallible, from New York to Germantown, even to the decisive battle of Yorktown, when he pushed for a different plan than the French. Had his plan won out, he would most likely have failed. Of course, faced with the odds Washington was, unqualified success would have been difficult to achieve, but the fact remains that he was no perfect military mastermind.

He fared much better as President. For all that he was no great thinker, he did extremely well to gather about him the brightest men of the day - especially during his first term - who helped achieve prominent firsts that laid the cornerstone of the Presidency as we know it.

This is a brilliant biography. As Chernow himself points out, too often our vision of the first President is a white-haired and unsmiling man, grave in black, very remote and powerful but also perhaps a little foolish-looking in the fashions of the time. The Washington Chernow highlights is the real flesh and blood man beneath the legend: fallible, warm-hearted, mercurial, a man who grew with the time and his struggles, and who exerted an extraordinary amount of will and strength to strive for self-mastery and selflessness. The real man, in my opinion, is even more impressive than the legend would have us believe.
Profile Image for Joy D.
1,888 reviews218 followers
April 4, 2022
Extremely detailed cradle-to-grave biography of George Washington that provides an excellent idea of his character and how he was perceived during his lifetime. Chernow is a beautiful writer with a great grasp of language. He captures scenes from Washington’s life in vivid detail. It is told in six parts:

- “The Frontiersman” tells of his ancestry, early life, participation in the British military in the French and Indian War, and introduction to his future wife, Martha Dandridge Custis.
- “The Planter” relates his return to Mount Vernon and introduces the issue of slave ownership.
- “The General” describes many people who will play key roles in the American Revolution (including especially Alexander Hamilton, Henry Knox, Nathanael Greene, and the Marquis de Lafayette) and covers Washington’s style of command, battles, horrible conditions faced by his troops, and eventual victory.
- “The Statesman” depicts Washington’s life after the Revolutionary War, the droves of visitors he hosted at his home, his aversion to mass popularity, leadership at the Constitutional Convention, the struggle for ratification, and election as the first President of the United States.
- “The President” recounts the eight years of Washington’s presidency – policies, appointments, actions, disagreements with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Whiskey Rebellion, Jay Treaty with Great Britain,
- “The Legend” provides an account of Washington’s final years, his death, how his slaves were eventually freed, and how his image was burnished after his death.
Chernow excels at providing the context for all of these sections. We learn quite a bit about Washington’s family relationships, especially his mother, wife, stepchildren, step-grandchildren, and the many relatives he helped support and brought into his home.

Luckily, Washington left massive amounts of documentation and Chernow has fashioned this information into a relatable narrative, combining history, biography, and storytelling. It contains an amazing amount of information beautifully conveyed in one volume with only occasional digressions. It is a massive tome, coming in around 900 pages, so it requires a significant time commitment. It is, in my opinion, well worth it.
Profile Image for Noah.
136 reviews6 followers
February 7, 2021
Well I read it in under two years! 💪😂

This book is NOT boring, but it is VERY long! Not unnecessarily so either, but Washington really was an amazing hero, and a tome of this magnitude is necessary to accurately retell his story.

If you want a story that exalts a man to the level of a god, cleansing every flaw and making him out to be Moses, this isn’t it. His quirks are all here, his obsession with appearances, his very complex and unfortunate relationship with slavery, everything.

If you’re looking for a book that excuses the toppling of statues, and removing of this man from history because of the devilish horror that he was in fact, human, this isn’t it either. You’ll be disappointed to find out that in spite of his foibles, he remains one of the most godly, moral, consistent men of character this nation has ever known. He is rightly referred to as the father of our country.

There is a great quote by Abigail Adams in the final chapter in which she explains that to tell the story of a great man, you neither have to hide his failures, nor exalt his virtues, just tell his story. That’s what Chernow does.

I was ashamed at his shortcomings, I was inspired by his incredible virtue and grace. He wasn’t a god, he was a man, and a man worth our attention. He was a man whose life we ought to study, and to study in the way this book was written.

Our country was founded by heroic men like this. Of that fact we ought to be both proud and grateful. Unfortunately, there are many today are very motivated to cause us to forget them. Thanks to Chernow, and a couple of years of on-and-off reading/listening to this book, I’ll not have be one of those people.

Pick it up, it’ll be a challenge for your stamina (and maybe your back) but it’s a treasure worth your investment.
Profile Image for Richard.
312 reviews2 followers
January 29, 2012
This was the fourth (and thickest) book I've read about George Washington, and the third book I've read by Chernow (I previously read his Rockefeller and Hamilton books) so I knew what to expect going in. It's slow moving at times and it took me a little while to get traction, but I found that the pace picked up around the time that the Revolution got underway. Very well researched, and a lot of depth. Chernow covers Washington the farmer, the soldier, the general, the President, and the patriarch. (Although Washington was childless, he ended up as a surrogate grandfather for a variety of kids.)

I wish that the book included maps, which are always helpful when reading about battles and troop movements, etc. even though I'm pretty familiar with the geography of the area between Virginia and Boston, which is where most of the book takes place. I also wish that there were more illustrations. Chernow seems to describe almost every portrait sitting that Washington endured and it would have been good to be able to see the paintings alongside Chernow's descriptions of them.

I think the best biographies not only cover the life of the subject, but also give us a sense of the time and place in which he or she lived. Chernow doesn't really do that here and I suppose this is one of the times when it might be okay since the book, with its laser focus on George Washington, already fills 817 pages and this book doesn't need to be any fatter. If you want a more accessible, and shorter, biography of Washington, try Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Flexner.

What works particularly well in this book is Chernow's look at the character of Washington. Washington was very concerned about what others thought of him, and fortunately in most cases this led him to show wisdom and restraint, which proved to be important in that Washington set many precedents that are still followed today. Washington is shown to be conflicted about slavery; he thought it was something that should end, but he put his own financial interest ahead of any abolitionist feelings he may have had. And his efforts, in one example, to squeeze as much work as he could from an 83-year-old slave certainly don't put him in a good light.

On a lighter note, I had never before realized how much of a "metrosexual" (to use a modern phrase) George Washington was.

Finally, ever since I read The Guns of August about ten years ago, I've been sensitive to the use of the phrase "must have" when reading history, and Chernow used more "must haves" than in any book I can recall reading. I don't know why this passage from Barbara Tuchman's introduction has stayed with me like it has, but here it is: I have tried to avoid spontaneous attribution or the "he must have" style of historical writing: "As he watched the coast·line of France disappear, Napoleon must have thought back over the long ..." All conditions of weather, thoughts or feelings, and states of mind public or private, in the following pages have documentary support. I thought of this quote each time I encountered one of the many "must haves" Chernow used. He's clearly not a disciple of Barbara Tuchman.
Profile Image for Mara.
400 reviews280 followers
November 15, 2014
Update: I just couldn't leave this review as it was, given Winona Ryder's amazing “Drunk History” portrayal of Benedict Arnold's wife, Peggy Shippen.

This book was everything that I didn't know that I didn't know about George Washington (you know, like in that punnet square of things you know you know etc.). Prior to reading this, I kind of assumed that I was knowledgeable about GW, I guess just through osmosis (my walk to work literally follows the Freedom Trail).

Turns out that, despite commuting from historical points A to B on the daily, my knowledge of revolutionary-era America was pretty limited. The joy of the book, for me, was very much in the details.

Exhibit A: Peggy Shippen (well, technically Arnold) pretty much ran a pseudo honeypot on Washington and co. to get her traitorous husband out of trouble, showing up scantily clad (by 18th century standards) feigning ignorance. That's right George Washington, you got played by this little minx.

Winona Ryder Peggy Shippen 1 Winona Ryder Peggy Shippen 2
Winona Ryder Peggy Shippen 3

While Chernow gives dimension and complexity to Washington's character and leadership, it doesn't come across as an attempt to smear a whitewashed vision of Washington that has been passed down through history. I found my opinions of and about Washington evolving with his own perceptions of the world. Though, obviously I didn't start off with Washington thinking that one should pick a slave with good teeth (ironic given his dental situation).

Long of the short, this book is pretty revolutionary (see what I did there?)

Profile Image for Katrina.
393 reviews100 followers
December 14, 2019
This book is a BEAST. I'm a fast reader and it took me ages to finish. But to the author's credit I was always engaged and wanting to read further. I especially liked the detail to Washington's life before and after the war. He was a fascinating person who dealt with many personal losses.

I was also caught up in frustration with a bunch of "if onlys."Especially if only Washington had taken a stand against slavery our country would have made a different path. While a reluctant slave owner he was no saint. And especially in his older years he knew this moral discrepancy yet still skirted around the issue when pressed even by people he loved and respected. Even Marquis de Lafayette, the French officer and hero of the American Revolution took a greater stand on emancipation than Washington. Disappointing for sure. It certainly spurs me and motivates me to teach my children on to just do the right thing even when it's the hard thing.
Profile Image for Joseph.
474 reviews48 followers
June 26, 2019
Ever read a book where, at the end, you want more? I felt this book could have been even longer than it was at 800 plus pages. A masterful biography of our foremost and first President, this tome was engaging through its entire length. I may be biased in favor of this author, because I have read some of his other works in biography. But this book was by far my favorite book so far this year. Absolutely smashing biography!!!!
Profile Image for Vincent Lowry.
Author 7 books876 followers
May 30, 2022
This book was amazing. Mr. Chernow did a remarkable job with the research and time spent on producing this astonishing portrait of George Washington. If I could give more stars for this book, I would.
Profile Image for Pyramids Ubiquitous.
453 reviews24 followers
November 20, 2022
Washington: A Life is exceptional in its ability to present different perspectives on George Washington, while also carrying us through his entire life and the birth of America. Through opinions for and against, as well as from Washington's own words, the reader is able to form a solid, unbiased picture of who the real George Washington was and what he stood for. I haven't decided whether it is reassuring or not, but it seems that divide and the threat of losing democracy have been cornerstones of American life from the very beginning. Throughout the course of history we bring ourselves to the brink of collapse and course-correct with just enough time for democracy to endure. That pull and tug of opposing ideals, I think, is what has allowed us to thrive for so long; I hope that we never lose the ability to compromise. Washington's presidency in itself is particularly fascinating in that he was the absolute perfect symbol to take on the burden as the nation's first president. I was endlessly transfixed in reading through the crises of the time through the perspective of Washington's role. All of those crises, in some evolution, still persist to this day. It is incredible how we have very slowly inched closer and closer to our promised ideal throughout our history.
Profile Image for Steve.
329 reviews1,076 followers
September 7, 2017

"Washington: A Life" is acclaimed author and historian Ron Chernow's most recent book, for which he received a 2011 Pulitzer Prize. He has also written biographies on John D. Rockefeller, Sr. and Alexander Hamilton and is particularly well-known for his inaugural book "The House of Morgan."

This is the longest single-volume biography on Washington in my library and is the second best-read among major available titles. Because this biography clocks in at three times the length of Ellis's "His Excellency," it is no surprise that Chernow's work loses a few readers to that of Elllis (which I recently read and reviewed). However, among all biographies of George Washington, Chernow's appears to be the best loved and most highly-rated.

Having plowed through 2,100 pages on Washington in the previous three weeks, the prospect of biting off another 800+ pages so soon with Chernow's biography was a bit daunting. However, my fears were soon eased as I realized I was probably reading the best biography of George Washington.

Compellingly written in a fluid, articulate and descriptive style, Chernow's book perfectly demonstrates his masterful storytelling skills. I did not notice much new information about Washington's life or character, but Chernow's style of writing, the book's nearly perfect pace and the conclusions he provides toward the end of the biography complement the enormous volume of previously-published works on Washington.

What I particularly liked was Chernow's manner of narrating which almost made it seem this was the first time I'd read about Washington...despite this being my third cradle-to-grave sojourn through Washington's life. Although it was difficult to avoid constantly drawing comparisons to the other biographies on Washington I'd just read, the outcome was, more often than not, favorable to Chernow.

In only two areas did I feel a slight preference for Flexner's earlier, more lengthy work. First, at about a thousand pages more weighty than "Washington: A Life," Flexner's four-volume series often provided more detail than Chernow could afford. Some of that detail, in hindsight, was helpful in forming a more robust, complete image of Washington and putting the reader fully inside Washington's head, particularly relating to his closest personal relationships.

Second, Flexner organized his narrative in a more rigorously chronological fashion. Where Chernow's work seemed more thematically-oriented with a less-strict adherence to timeline, I was able to follow simultaneous story lines more easily with Flexner - and often with more historical context.

To its great credit, however, I found within "Washington: A Life" so many perceptive, insightful or deeply clever observations that before many pages had passed, I re-started the book from the beginning...this time with a commitment to chronicling those passages which were particularly memorable or well-conceived. I ended up with a collection of nearly two hundred of these special items to savor.

My perspective reduced to a single point, Chernow has struck the perfect balance with this biography between the much lengthier (though more descriptive) work by James Thomas Flexner and the solid, but too-brief, biography "His Excellency: George Washington" by Joseph Ellis.

If I were forced to "save" for posterity just one work on Washington, out of a reverence for the classics I might defer to the multi-volume work of James Thomas Flexner. But if I had to recommend just one biography of Washington to a friend who hungered for an exceedingly well-written, insightful and astonishingly enjoyable presidential biography, I would enthusiastically recommend "Washington: A Life" by Ron Chernow.

Overall Rating: 5 stars
Profile Image for Joe.
326 reviews77 followers
July 8, 2015

In this book's introduction the author, tackling "the most famously elusive figure in American history." sets the goal of rendering George Washington as "real" and "credible" - something every biographer aims for - and to his credit, Mr. Chernow succeeds handsomely. Not only does the reader learn that Washington never wore a wig, was "only" six feet tall and in fact did have major dental issues, he was also very sensitive about his lack of education, was slow to make decisions and made great efforts in separating his public persona from his private one - the latter seen by only his wife Martha. Also Washington's mother was "troublesome".

Much has been written about the "Father of our Country" - much of it flat out false, i.e. the infamous cherry tree. Washington was obsessive about his image and his historical legacy so separating fact from fiction can be difficult at times. Washington collected all of his papers - voluminous to say the least - and "rewrote" and "edited" some of his correspondence, specifically to correct misspellings. Further compounding the accuracy of Washington's historical record is that these papers have been ransacked, edited and even partially destroyed by well-meaning "historians" over time.

Chernow does an excellent job in sifting through this maze. This book rarely bogs down and when it does, very briefly - not a trivial feat in an 800+ page book. The author uses no "literary tricks", this is an old fashioned, straightforward biography, containing both the good and the bad - for instance the author spends much time on Washington's conflicting attitude on slavery - and just the right amount of supporting information - quotes and historical narrative - to place Washington within the context of his times - all without losing the thread of Washington's life and overwhelming the reader with details.

An excellent book and highly recommended.
Profile Image for Larry Bassett.
1,413 reviews299 followers
May 23, 2016
I feel like I have been reading this book forever although I see it has only been about three weeks. I experienced this book in the audible format and as such it is 41 hours long. I am giving it five stars because I enjoyed listening to it going to bed and felt that it gave a fairly balanced view of George Washington. I have just recently been reading some of the biographies of the founding fathers.

I was amazed to realize that the American revolution lasted eight years and Washington was the commander-in-chief for that full time. Of course they only five in the good weather so he spent a lot of the time camped out. I was surprised to realize that he probably lost more battles then he won and that the final victory of the revolution was the battle that was fought in the south primarily by the French. The financial problems of the Continental Army are well known. These problems were a big part of the impetus for Washington wanting a strong national government.

Between the war in the presidency George Washington Led the Constitutional Congress that wrote the constitution.

And then there was the eight years that Washington was the president. He spent a lot of those 17 years thinking he was not really qualified or adequate for the positions he held. I thought the book was open enough about his deficiencies but it let you think that he was not completely wrong in thinking that! But it seemed like he was the right guy for the job of the first president. He had a cabinet of big stars and had the idea that the government could be nonpartisan. He gave up on that idea for the last two years of his presidency and after his retirement when he became a pretty determined Federalist and enemy of Jefferson.

To extremely controversial issues that were dealt with fairly openly indicating Washington's position where slavery and treatment of the Native Americans. Washington also had a lifetime disability of spending more than he earned.
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