Saturday, March 12, 2011

Washington: A Life

I've had a particularly good streak of audio books lately--Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra, Eric Larson's The Devil in the White City, and between the two I managed to listen to Edward Hermann (Richard Gilmore on the Gilmore Girls) read Ron Chernow's Washington: A Life.

Much as I like U.S. history, Washington has never really been a character I gravitated to. As "Father of Our Country," he always seemed a bit too stern, prim, and unapproachable for me. I've always preferred the complexity of Jefferson, the ambition of Adams, and the jutzpah of Franklin, though a few years ago I became enamoured with Hamilton after listening to his bio, which was also by Ron Chernow. However, again with an credit that was just begging to be spent, I picked Chernow's bio of Washington, remembering a fellow blogger's praise of the book's depth and readability.

I was not disappointed. Although my view of Washington as stern and prim remains intact, the book was so well-written that it held my interest and enabled me to appreciate Washington as a product of his time and circumstances, molded by family and talents. I came away with a much greater appreciation of the man as both a warrior and a politician, a husband and a master.

Chernow did an excellent job of balancing social history--slavery, trade issues, wilderness, Indian affairs, transportion, economy--with the various military campaigns that Washington was involved in from his early twenties until he was finally able to retire after his second term as president. Chernow also did an superb job of weaving the themes of luck, duty, and perseverance into the narrative so that Washington emerges as someone blessed with opportunities that he was gracious enough to use and not squander or take for granted. It truly is amazing that with all that he accomplished, with all the fanfare associated with his stature as first president of a new country and the fear that so many held when he declined to run for a third term, he maintained what appears to be genuine humility and a genuine desire to retire quietly to his beloved home.

I came away from this book with a new respect for the leadership that George Washington embraced and exhibited and personified throughout his life and career as military man and public servant. That said, I am not in any danger of hero worship with regards to Washington. Chernow depicts a realistic and sometime chilling and mostly horrific picture of slavery and the deep-seated hypocrisy of the slave owners who also professed to be lovers of liberty.

This is definitely a book worth reading--the schlarship is sound, the writing is a pleasure to read, and the history and perspective on the U.S. and its definitely troubled origins are priceless.

I followed up reading the book by watching Jeff Daniels in the A&E movie, The Crossing, which recounts the American army's crossing of the Delaware to attack the British forces at Trenton, New Jersey. I thought it well done and thought Daniels did a good job depicting Washington as a leader, a warrior, and a politician.

Here's a great scene to give you flavor:


  1. I have very similar feelings about Washington, but I've always felt I need to read a biography simply because he is the first! This sounds like a good one, and I think I'll go for the audio too.
    I saw The Crossing a while ago, but I remember enjoying it.

  2. I've also felt distant from Washington, sounds like this would be a great way to get to know him on a more personal level.

    And I listened to John Adams by Mccullough on audio. You say you've been drawn to him so I assume you've already read it, but if not, Do. It is marvelous!

  3. Chernow did a great job, I thought, of portraying a balanced picture of Washington. On the one hand, I got done with this admiring him more than ever but then I also came away thinking he was no where near the man we have deified over the past 200+ years.