One of the things I have noticed having grown up in the UK is the lack of time I have spent covering US history. Sure, I studied the Great Depression, the New Deal, and Vietnam in some brief detail for GCSE (public exams sat around the age of 16,for the sake of non-UK readers) but almost everything else was neglected at school. And my private learning has hardly increased my knowledge of anything but very modern history. I have a better awareness of developments in military hardware on the Continent during the 16th Century than I do the American Civil War. This knowledge-gap would not have been something I would have noticed however, were it not for meeting my American fiancée.
National history is a big deal for any country, and the US is no exception. In fact, I am consistently impressed by how well-versed the average (in my limited experience) citizen appears to be on their country’s heritage. As my long-term plans now lie in that direction, I resolved a little while ago to learn more of their history. To that end, I plan to cover it chronologically by reading a cradle-to-grave biography of each President of the United States and reviewing them here.
To begin, I chose Ron Chernow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of George Washington. So much has been written about Washington that it is a little hard to know where to start, but Chernow comes glowingly reviewed and, with a background in journalism and two well-received biographies (of Rockefeller and Hamilton) behind him, he seemed a safe bet.
This is an excellently written biography which, for its 800(ish) pages, never once felt slow. Chernow conveys the sense of a maturing leader by referring to past and future events in considering lessons learned by Washington and unites the narrative by concentrating on three aspects of Washington’s personality: his rigid moral code; his strong emotions, hidden behind an unflappable facade; and his inconsistent views on slavery. This final trait was, to my mind, one of the most interesting parts of the book as it demonstrates the national debate about slavery in microcosm. Washington feared the collapse of his estate were his slaves to be freed, while at the same time doubting the economic virtues and moral rightness of the practice. It also elicited the strongest criticism from Chernow of any of Washington’s flaws, which he would in other instances generally play down.
It must be difficult to study a subject in such depth and not feel a degree of attachment. The only criticism I have for this book is that Chernow is too quick to excuse poor judgement and character flaws in the young Washington as lessons learned for the future. While it is probably true that Washington learned from these errors, that message is implicit within a cradle-to-grave biographical account anyway, and can be more usefully mentioned at a point where that lesson is put into practice, rather than needlessly hypothesising Washington’s self-improvement at the time. It felt as if Chernow was defensive over the young Washington and I was glad to see him becoming more openly critical from Washington’s generalship onwards: the account felt more balanced as a consequence.
Character flaws notwithstanding, I found myself slightly awestruck by the character of Washington. Going into my reading of this book, I was unsure what to expect. Although I was familiar with images and some stories surrounding the man, I had little knowledge of the history of this period and Washington is deified to such an extent that it is hard to grasp the person underneath that from the impression given in popular culture. The impression I was left with is a man with almost unlimited patience, a powerful sense of duty, and a personality that many found irresistible. Chernow concludes his section on the Revolutionary War observing that Washington lost more battles than he won but that his success lay rather in holding together an army ”handicapped by such constantly crippling conditions“. The real strength of this book lies not in what it shows about the General or the President (although the two sections with those labels occupy 500 pages, or 60% of the book) but in the man it reveals underneath.