I read and liked Chernow’s biographies of Alexander Hamilton and John D. Rockefeller. Now he’s done George Washington.
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 lifeâ€”with next to no justificationâ€”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.
Six-feet tall, immensely strong, with the muscular thighs of a superb horsemanâ€”he was an almost obsessive rider to houndsâ€”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.)