Monday, January 17, 2011

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

It's taken me a month to finish reading Ron Chernow's highly acclaimed (and rightfully so) new biography of George Washington.

The hard copy of the book is over 900 pages long, but I read it via IBooks on my IPad, which made it much easier to handle a work of this size and scope. In the process I learned how to highlight, bookmark and make footnotes digitally, and became quite comfortable with those techniques. Hooray for IBooks!

Chernow set out to explore every facet of Washington's complex character and brilliantly succeeds in bringing the reader to appreciate both the greatness and the shortcomings of the man recognized as the "Father of our country". I did not realize the vast collection of documents, letters and other papers that were available to historians because Washington was acutely aware of his future place in history and carefully saved virtually every scrap of paper that documented his life and career. His influence on the creation of our country, government, the capital and even our way of life is so pervasive that only a monumental biography like this one can begin to uncover it.

This biography is so extensive and well-documented that it is hard to know how to write a review in the relatively short format of a blog. There are so many things I learned in the course of reading it that I would love to share, but in the interest of keeping my readers with me, I am going to focus in this review on Washington the slaveholder and Washington the man of faith.

It seems fitting to reflect on the slavery issue as I am writing this review on January 16, now a national holiday celebrating the birth of a descendant of slaves, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Washington held two types of "slave property"--those he owned outright and those that were "dower slaves". Although Washington owned outright about 100 slaves at his death, most of the slaves he held were dower slaves. These Dower slaves were given to Martha as gifts when she married her first husband. Under the law of the day, dower slaves would pass to Martha's children by her first marriage and therefore George had no legal authority to free them.

Over the course of his life Washington became more and more convinced that slavery must end or else ultimately would be the destruction of the republic. He decided he would not purchase slaves nor would he sell them away from their families. The resulting growth in the slave population on his Mount Vernon plantation and other properties came to be one of the causes of economic strain in the latter part of his life. 

Chernow recounts that 47 slaves were documented as runaways from the Washingtons. George Washington did attempt to reclaim them, despite his stated aversion to slavery. 

A memorable incident recounted by Chernow involves the case of the slave Oney  "Ona" Judge. Ona, Martha's personal maid, was the mulatto daughter of a slave and an indentured servant at Mount Vernon. She fled from the President's residence in Philadelphia to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, after learning that Martha Washington had promised her as a wedding gift to her  temperamental granddaughter, Eliza Custis, upon their return to Virginia.

President Washington advertised a reward for her capture and return and furtively attempted to arrange her kidnap from the free state of New Hampshire. Ona later wrote that the Washingtons never taught her to read or write or gave her any "moral education." When Washington's stated ideals about slavery conflicted with his financial interest his ideals were ignored and his actions hypocritical.

In the last year of his life Washington secretly wrote a new will giving the slaves he owned outright to his wife Martha, but providing that upon her death, they would have their freedom.   An unforseen consequence was that his widow became fearful for her safety because the other slaves knew that they would be free upon her death, so she freed the remainder of these slaves the following year.

Chernow points out that Washington was the only one of the Founding Fathers who actually freed his slaves, albeit posthumously.

There has been a lot of sentimentalization about Washington's faith by later generations. Washington was a regular in his attendance of an Anglican church in Virginia, but his statements about faith seem formal and stilted to the modern reader. This does not mean he did not have it, but rather that his ways of expressing it are very different from what is viewed as "authentic" today. 

Washington did believe in religious toleration and carefully attended worship at churches in other denominations to set an example for others.

I highly recommend Washington: A Life. It is well worth the effort I put into reading it. I'm buying a hard copy for El Jefe, who still isn't onboard with digital books.


  1. I wonder if this book would make a good source for a mini-series on Washington? I really enjoyed the John Adams mini-series on HBO several years ago. I'm not sure I can make it through a 900-page read, but I know I'd watch a movie!

  2. It would be a wonderful resource--lots of opportunity for drama with his conflicted relationship with his mother; the Revolutionary War and building of the nation; his conflicted feelings about slavery; and not to mention his distrust and dislike of Thomas Jefferson.

    I liked the John Adams series, too. I tried to read the book it was based on but found it really really dull. My husband said "of course it's dull. It's about John Adams!" He had a point. But the Washington book is far from dull!