George Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

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This book is incredibly long, and I’ll be honest, if I didn’t get this on audiobooks I probably would have gotten a third of the way through and called it quits.

I really love biographies, so if my mind starts to wander and I get side tracked while reading or listening to a biography, that’s usually a sign things are getting too wordy or a little dry. I think for this one it was a little bit of that, and also me just burning out since this was just shy of 1000 pages about George Washington, that’s a lot of Washington to take in.

I really admire the depths to which this biography delves into Georges life, and how many first hand letters and documents he researched while writing this, as opposed to using other biographies as a sole source of citations.

George was a very closed lipped person, he didn’t have many confidants and when he was speaking publicly he considered every word he spoke carefully. He had a lot of inner thoughts he didn’t share with the world, and it’s a shame because he was a powerful figure that could have possibly swayed minds about slavery well before the civil war.

He had a very strained relationship with his mother, so strained in fact that she didn’t even come to his wedding. His mother didn’t meet his wife until more than a year after they were married, and never bothered to come visit. It was always up to George and his wife to make the trip to her, instead of the other way around. They weren’t warm with each other, but George did try his best to appease her for the entirety of her life, it never seemed to lead anywhere though, she always seemed disappointed in him despite all he accomplished.

It seemed like George had a running streak of good/bad luck that hoisted him into higher stations much quicker than normal. A string of deaths in the family elevated him to inherit a lot of wealth and land, and he quickly added to it by marrying above his station.

The Washington’s owned slaves, everyone knows that, but I was hoping to get more information about that in this book, and thankfully Ron Chernow didn’t try and skip over that sordid part of their history. He did, however, seem to try and damper the outrage you may feel over the injustices he inflicted by quickly pointing out that George and his wife were much more lenient than was standard at the time. It read kind of strange that with every few sentences about their slave ownership, he would write in a line about how they weren’t ‘as bad as the others’. Now, there is credence to it, George never hung any of his slaves when they ran away, which was custom. He did give them medical supplies and made sure they were all healthy and “well taken care of”, he was known for chastising his physicians, instructing his doctors to treat them with compassion rather than like a farm animal. However, George lacked a fundamental understanding that these were human beings who had no desire to be in chains, even if the chains were nice clothes and an education. He was very upset every time a slave ran away from his plantations and was steadfast about tracking them down and returning them to the plantation. He took personal offence to their running away as if they betrayed him somehow. He made certain that slave families weren’t broken up when being bought or sold, but he never thought to free any of them, despite the fact that was always an option.

He was obsessive about being ‘genteel’, and would punish his soldiers for things like swearing. He thought that a persons attire bespoke volumes of their character, and looked down on people who weren’t dressed crisply. He was a rigid and cool person in most areas of life, but loosened up in certain arenas, like balls and theater. He was actually an excellent dancer, and one of the few times people saw him smile was while watching a play.

Despite being happily married, George never had any kids. Many people at that time saw it as a sign from God that he was meant to be the next leader of the country because he wasn’t tied down by children and could focus entirely on the war. It also made him a good first candidate for an elected president because he couldn’t try and bequeath the office to his heir. Some people speculated that he was a closeted gay person, but it’s much more likely he was infertile due to a smallpox infection. He was known for being flirtatious and being overly fond of dancing with young ladies. He also had a thing for a woman named Sally Fairfax who he held a candle for, likely even after he was married.

There’s a lot to learn about one of the more closed off Presidents we’ve ever had, and overall I really enjoyed myself. The audiobook was well done, and I think if I had split it up rather than trying to get through it in a few days maybe I would have had a more enjoyable read.

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