Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Washington: A Life • Ron Chernow • New York: Penguin Press, 2010 • xxii, 906 pp. • $40.00
Reviewed by R. B. Bernstein, distinguished adjunct professor of law at New York Law School. His most recent book is The Founding Fathers Reconsidered (2009).
This massive life of George Washington is the latest book by Ron Chernow, an independent scholar known for his acclaimed biographies of key figures in American
economic history. Paralleling Marcus Cunliffe's classic study George Washington: Man and Monument (1958), Chernow makes his central theme the contrast between Washington's reputation for coldness and aloofness and his lifelong struggle to master his passions, maintaining the control required by his duty as a gentleman, soldier, politician, and president. Building on this wise choice with grace and skill, Chernow brings us amazingly close to Washington as an evolving human being.
Chernow's Washington begins as an ambitious young colonist, a surveyor and
militia officer, striving to better himself despite his lackluster background and rudimentary education. Chernow traces how Washington found mentors, perhaps to
compensate for his father's early death. He also captures Washington's capacity
for intellectual and emotional growth, which enabled him to become a respected
colonial political figure, a revolutionary war leader, and a founding father. No less important is Washington's lifelong desire to invest in land and to maintain his fortune in the face of Virginia's turbulent economy. Chernow illuminates Washington's commitment to the United States and his conviction that the new nation required a strong government administered with tact, firmness, and sound judgment. Above all, Chernow stresses how Washington's sense of duty drove him to accept the burdens of public life despite his yearning for retirement. Though this interpretation may seem familiar to expert readers, it is clear and convincing.
Chernow has steeped himself in the primary sources and the extensive scholarly literature. Surprisingly, he does not cite two valuable monographs by Glenn A. Phelps (George Washington and American Constitutionalism ) and Jeffry H. Morrison (The Political Philosophy of George Washington ), which explore Washington's constitutional and political thought. Phelps and Morrison show that Washington had a well-developed understanding of politics, governance, and constitutionalism; he was a full partner with such younger figures as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison rather than their mere "aegis" (Hamilton's word). Chernow's persuasive account of Washington's political and constitutional views would have benefited from Phelps's and Morrison's fine books. By contrast, Chernow has made excellent use of the scholarship examining Washington and slavery, mapping his evolution from unreflective slaveowner and harsh but fair master to the man who increasingly expressed doubts about the wisdom and justice of slavery and who in his will commanded that his slaves be freed after his wife's death (though not his wife's slaves, because of her dower rights).
The main issue requiring this reviewer's respectful dissent is the assessment of criticisms of Washington by such contemporaries as John Adams, Benjamin Rush,
William Maclay, and Thomas Paine. Chernow's admiration for Washington sometimes leads him to dismiss these critics as unfair and envious. Chernow rightly concludes that we should take most of these criticisms with a grain of salt—sometimes a salt mine. Nonetheless, their criticisms illuminate the standards by which Washington's critics assessed him; criteria for evaluating a president were as untried and subject to change as the office itself. For example, whereas Washington's aloofness expressed his need to preserve his reputation (a national and not merely personal asset) from damage by undue familiarity or by insufficient control of his emotions, his critics' fear of monarchism would have led them to interpret his demeanor as signifying either his embrace of monarchism or his willingness to shield others in his official circle who were (or were seen as) embracing monarchism.
Ultimately, this book's considerable virtues outweigh this reviewer's caveats. It is almost impossible to convey why a historical figure is great and why that greatness matters. To Chernow's credit, he succeeds on both counts.