George Washington was a genius and a titan, but it was politics, not war, at which he excelled
It was said of Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck that he was the subtle son of his feline mother posing all his life as his heavy, portentous father. Similarly, the George Washington who emerges from this truly magnificent life is an acute, consummate politician who posed all his life—with next to no justification—as a bluff but successful soldier. The pose came off because Washington himself so desperately wanted it to be true, but Ron Chernow wrenches back the curtain to reveal the real Washington, a general almost bereft of tactical ability yet a politician full of penetrating strategic insight. In this (English, anti-Revolutionary) reviewer’s estimation, Washington emerges a far greater man.
‘Parson Weem’s Fable’ by Grant Wood (1939)
Six-feet tall, immensely strong, with the muscular thighs of a superb horseman—he was an almost obsessive rider to hounds—Washington was “made like a hero,” as Mr. Chernow puts it, despite having a small head in proportion to his frame. Nor did his “weak, breathy voice” and lack of oratorical ability detract from his image as a man of action.
A formidable but unloving mother and the death of his father when Washington was 11 instilled in him a ravening ambition. There was, believes Mr. Chernow, a “constant struggle between his dignified reserve and his underlying feelings,” especially a tempestuous temper. Thomas Jefferson recalled him being “most tremendous in wrath.”
The adjective that best describes Washington’s personality and instincts, ironically enough, is “English.” He had a fair complexion that sunburnt easily; he bought his clothes and most other goods from London merchants; he never affirmed the divinity of Jesus Christ but actively supported his local Anglican churches; he rebuilt Mount Vernon (named after an English admiral) on classically English architectural principles; he was phlegmatic and disliked overfamiliarity; he even played cricket during the dark days of Valley Forge. Mr. Chernow ascribes his break with Britain to the moronic refusal of the British authorities to grant Washington a regular army commission. “His hostility to the mother country,” Mr. Chernow writes, “was a case of thwarted love.” (Though he hints that it might also have involved greed, since Britain was threatening to curtail the distinctly dodgy Ohio land speculation that was enriching Washington in the mid-1770s.)
“The young Washington could be alternatively fawning and assertive, appealingly modest and distressingly pushy,” states Mr. Chernow, due to “the unstoppable force of his ambition.” Certainly everything in his early life conspired perfectly to win him the job of commander in chief of the Continental Army in 1775—excepting actual military ability. He had contracted smallpox early and so was immune from the disease that killed more soldiers than bayonets; he hailed from the most populous colony, Virginia; he had fought enthusiastically in the earliest part of the French and Indian War; he was physically tough after his extensive travels in the West, where he had often come close to death; and he was ethereally comfortable with the sound of bullets whistling past his ears. Perhaps best of all, he was a well-connected member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, even though his sharp practices at two of his elections hardly reflect honorably on “the Father of the Country.”
‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’ (1851) by Emanuel Leutze
Much of his social standing in Virginia stemmed from the wealth of his wife, Martha. Although he undoubtedly married for money—he was in love with Sally Fairfax, the wife of a friend—it proved a successful union. Martha spent half of the War of Independence, 53 of its 105 months, alongside her husband. He might not have seen his beloved Mount Vernon once in over six years of campaigning, but he saw plenty of his wife.
Mr. Chernow presents Washington’s battlefield decisions as lackluster at best. The rookie commander in chief took six months to make Gen. William Howe evacuate Boston. Washington was defeated at the Battle of Brooklyn and then shouldn’t have tried to hold New York and Fort Washington, whose 2,837 defenders were sent to prison hulks, after which “he temporarily lost the internal fortitude to obey his own instincts.” He then lost the Battle of White Plains. The famed crossing of the Delaware and subsequent Battle of Trenton was simply a raid in force; only 22 Hessians were killed and 84 wounded, and Washington returned to Pennsylvania immediately afterward. Similarly, he had to retreat straight after the Battle of Princeton. This was nonetheless a genuine victory, unlike the “shattering defeat” at the much larger Battle of Brandywine. Washington understandably ceded Philadelphia to Howe at a time when 1,000 of his men were marching barefoot.
The Life of the Lives
In even the most impressive biographies, a curious bifurcation can appear when the author’s source notes are compared with his acknowledgments. In “Washington: A Life,” Ron Chernow emphasizes his reliance on primary sources. According to his notes, however, other biographers—notably Douglas Southall Freeman and James Thomas Flexner, authors of justifiably renowned multivolume lives of Washington—provided a good deal of the narrative fuel. It does Mr. Chernow no disservice to regard his biography as a culmination of a long biographical tradition that has divested Washington of his marmoreal armor.
The Washington myth begins with Parson Weems’s 1800 tale of the boy who could not tell a lie. How many cherry trees owe their longevity to the parson’s prevarication God only knows, but each subsequent biographer has aimed to reveal the man behind the myth. Freeman sought to portray not the marble man but a self-seeking, hot- tempered youth who only gradually put the concerns of his country first—and who had the personal ambition and political acumen to establish himself as first among the Founders. Indeed, Freeman’s seven volumes (1948-57) debunked the Washington myth so well that Flexner, in writing his four-volume life (1965-72), complained that he had to contend with considerable hostility toward his subject from those who seemed to take an almost perverse delight in detecting the great man’s flaws. But biography swung back to lauding Washington (while conceding his failings)—as in Joseph Ellis’s “His Excellency” (2004) or Richard Brookhiser’s elegant “Founding Father” (1996), which the author calls a “moral biography” in the tradition of Plutarch. Ellis’s remains the finest short life (320 pages) of Washington, while Brookhiser’s study supplies the kind of character analysis difficult to achieve in chronological narratives.
Washington dominated the national scene far longer than Abraham Lincoln or even FDR, and scholars have been loath to take on the whole man within the covers of a single volume. And so we have admirable, if truncated, studies such as Edward Lengel’s “General George Washington” (2005) and Peter R. Henriques’s thematic “Realistic Visionary” (2006).
Flexner’s 1974 redaction has been the standard, but it cannot compete with the vivacity of Ron Chernow’s new narrative, even if the two arrive at many of the same conclusions. For those who want their Washington in even greater detail than Mr. Chernow supplies, Flexner’s multivolume work remains the most readable and authoritative source.
More than a mastery of history and of the facts of Washington’s life are at stake when a writer commits himself to a one-volume life. The author has to write with supreme confidence, which means, for all his research and respect for the historical record, he owes an even greater obligation to the craft of biography itself. In Mr. Chernow’s case, this means daring to dress Washington in a contemporary costume so as to keep 18th-century trappings from distracting the reader from truly seeing the man. In his author’s note, Mr. Chernow announces that he has changed his subject’s grammar, fixing commas to smooth older texts. This is no minor matter, but it works well in a biography that wants most of all to create a living George Washington.
If Mr. Chernow’s source notes reveal how deeply he has immersed himself in previous accounts of Washington, his narrative structure demonstrates how profoundly conscious he is of the way his own decisions shape the image of Washington that emerges in this subtly self-aware biography.
At Brandywine and Germantown, Washington’s next defeat, there were 150 Americans killed, 520 wounded and 400 captured against British losses of 70 killed, 450 wounded and 15 captured. Yet Washington reported both battles to Congress as something so approaching victories that it had a medal struck in his honor. The Battle of Monmouth Court House was at best a draw in terms of numbers killed, and the British effected an unharassed retreat during the night.
The next and last of Washington’s battles was Yorktown. He arrived there after his mistaken attempt to retake New York (he later claimed that the effort was a feint to deceive the enemy, which Mr. Chernow terms a “lie”) and long after Adm. de Grasse’s 28 ships-of-the-line and the French infantry and artillery had bottled up Cornwallis’s 9,000-strong army near the end of the peninsula.
Mr. Chernow notes “that the Yorktown victory had depended upon the French skill at sieges, backed up by French naval superiority.” Small wonder that Cornwallis ordered his sword to be delivered up to the French when he surrendered on Oct. 19, 1781, rather than to Washington. Meanwhile, Washington allowed the captured Loyalists to sail back to New York, whereas the recaptured slaves—including two of his own 300 or so—were sent back to their plantations.
Although Washington is acknowledged as a master of espionage and disinformation, anyone hoping to find him lauded by Mr. Chernow as the figure whose presiding genius won the War of Independence will be disappointed. “With a mind neither quick nor nimble,” he writes, “Washington lacked the gift of spontaneity and found it hard to improvise on the spot.” At best he had “keen powers of judgment rather than originality.”
Yet, crucially for America’s as well as his own future, Washington was endowed with preternatural leadership qualities—primarily the ability to seem confident when privately he felt, as Mr. Chernow puts it, “gloomy, scathing, hot-blooded and pessimistic.” It was “perhaps less his military skills than his character which eclipsed all competitors,” he writes. “Washington was dignified, circumspect and upright, whereas his enemies seemed petty and skulking.” This was true not just of his overt British enemies but also of his many covert detractors inside the Continental Army and in Congress.
During the war, Washington needed to keep the army—which Mr. Chernow describes as “a bizarre mongrel corps that flouted the rules of contemporary warfare”—as a fighting force in the field, no matter how many towns or battles were lost. In this he succeeded triumphantly, despite venereal disease among the troops, a dearth of gunpowder, mass desertions, treachery (even from some of his own bodyguards), and truly monstrous winters. “Whatever his failings as a general,” writes Mr. Chernow, “Washington’s moral force held the shaky army together.”
It is worth considering whether the “windswept plateau” of Valley Forge, where 2,000 of Washington’s men died of diseases compounded by malnutrition, was really the best place to spend the winter of 1777–78, but it seems that the only reason there was no mutiny in that “scene of harrowing misery” was Washington’s sheer force of personality. (And perhaps the fact that any man caught stealing food was given 600 lashes.)
A 19th-century etching of the ragged Continental army marching to Valley Forge
In the end, nothing can detract from the untarnishable glory of Washington’s having been the commander in chief throughout the war, in which the largest expeditionary force of the 18th century came to total grief.
American Revolutionary politics was a contact sport, and in the course of this 817-page adventure story one stands astonished that Washington never had to fight a duel. Libels were constant. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Rush, Charles Lee and many more—even occasionally his generally supportive aides Alexander Hamilton and Joseph Reed—all decried him, though most came to regret it.
They all took the bluff soldier pose at face value and missed the brilliant politician lurking beneath. By the end of this well-researched, well-written and absolutely definitive biography, readers will conclude that George Washington was indeed a genius and a titan, but for very different reasons than the world thought at the time.
Mr. Roberts is the author of “Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West” (HarperCollins).
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