The best biography of George Washington yet

Ron Chernow's extraordinary new book paints the first president as a man in a struggle to contain his emotions

Topics: History, Nonfiction, Our Picks, Books,

The best biography of George Washington yetWashington: A Life by Ron Chernow

Two unforgettable images run through Ron Chernow’s great book, “Washington: A Life,” and they have nothing to do with cherry trees or wooden teeth or silver dollars thrown across the Potomac.

The first is the image of a gallows. It appears early in the narrative, when Colonel George Washington of the Virginia Militia, seeking to terrify his untutored, undisciplined, ragamuffin soldiers into obedience, builds a 40-foot-high gibbet. Soon after, he sentences 14 of his men to death for desertion and insubordination. Though he will eventually spare 12 from the noose, he will still punish them with absolutely fierce and shocking floggings, an average of 600 lashes per prisoner. “Washington made a point of hanging people in public,” Ron Chernow writes, “to deter others.” It is an expression of “his blazing temper.” It is also a result of his experience as explorer and soldier in the Virginia wilderness, “which darkened his view of human nature.” His lifelong practice will be to see “people as motivated more by force than kindness.” When he hangs his first man, the year is 1756, Virginia is still a British colony, and Washington is 24 years old.

Barnes & Noble ReviewThese gallows will recur. They are what novelists call a “through-line” or motif, a pattern of figures within a story. To a historian they are that and more. They are a kind of portal into Washington’s famously elusive, enigmatic character.

Gallows and nooses were, of course, an ordinary part of Washington’s time and world. To hang a disobedient solider — or rebel — was commonplace in 18th century warfare. The British government routinely punished treason this way, with the additional flourish of disemboweling the offender while he was still alive, and then decapitating him. When Benjamin Franklin cautions the Continental Congress that “we must all hang together, or we will all hang separately,” only the first part of his famous sentence is metaphorical.



Washington became a rebel and a revolutionary well aware that, in the event of defeat, just as Franklin said, he would be hanged, drawn and quartered by the king’s justice. As the culprit in chief, he could expect no mercy. The revolutionaries all fought, he later said, “with halters around our necks.” But his recurrence to the imagery of hanging — and to the real thing — reminds us not only of his courage and realism, but also of the remarkable, even perpetual fury he usually buried or concealed behind a calm, stony façade. When he had reached the limit of his patience with war profiteers at Valley Forge, Washington erupted in a violent rage that would not have surprised any of his subordinates — “I would to God,” he burst out to the president of Congress, “that one of the most atrocious of each state was hung in gibbets upon a gallows five times as high as the one prepared for Haman.”

These gallows and halters show us something else as well: the discipline, the iron will that sets Washington apart from almost all of his contemporaries. In the Benedict Arnold affair, when the captured British spy John Andre, a handsome and sympathetic figure, pleaded to be executed like a gentleman by a firing squad, Washington turned his back. Despite the wrenching protests of Hamilton and Lafayette, he ordered Andre hanged in full view of the army, as an example to his own soldiers and a message to the British. “Policy,” he explained to the French admiral Rochambeau, “required a sacrifice.”

The second recurring image is much less stern and inflexible. It is the image of Washington taking his place, sitting or standing, before a portrait painter, an act that he performed literally hundreds of times in his life. Chernow begins his book with such a moment — Washington in 1793, the newly elected first president of the United States, seated before the disheveled, chattering, snuff-taking artist Gilbert Stuart. The supremely self-disciplined Washington would not care for such a man. Almost at once, Chernow notes, he retreated behind his stolid mask. But Stuart was a painter of genius. He saw the immense force of personality that lay behind Washington’s discipline. “The mouth might be compressed,” Chernow says, “the parchment skin drawn tight over ungainly dentures, but Washington’s eyes still blazed from his craggy face. In the enduring image that Stuart captured and that ended up on the one-dollar bill — a magnificent image of Washington’s moral stature and sublime, visionary nature — he also recorded something hard and suspicious in the wary eyes with their penetrating gaze and hooded lids.”

Stuart knew that he had seen — and painted — a man of explosive, tumultuous character. Afterward, he would tell a friend that Washington’s features “were indicative of the strongest and most ungovernable passions.” Such was the force of his personality, Stuart declared, that had Washington been born in the forests, he “would have been the fiercest man among the savage tribes.”

In a brilliant use of scholarly material, Chernow — the author of a number of other distinguished biographies, including “The House of Morgan”, which won the National Book Award, and “Alexander Hamilton” — pauses again and again in his narrative to describe such portraits of Washington, from youth to old age. It is, if you write as clearly and sensitively as Chernow, a wonderful way of giving the reader a concrete sense of the arc of Washington’s life and the changes in his appearance over the years. And it is a vivid way of stressing the charismatic effect of his physical presence, lost to us now except as we glimpse it in faded splashes of color within the frame of a painting, though every contemporary testifies to its existence. “It is hard to exaggerate his impact on others,” Garry Wills has written. “Some animal vitality, conveyed we don’t know how, baked off him.”

These recurring portraits also allow Chernow to return, logically and gracefully, to his central theme: “Washington’s lifelong struggle to control his emotions.” He has in mind more than simply Washington’s well-documented temper, or its opposite, his notorious and unnerving gift of silence when pressed or offended. For Chernow, Washington was always on guard as well against his “softer emotions.” He was a rugged soldier who could weep in public, a sentimentalist who never forgot his earliest, perhaps illicit romance with Sally Fairfax. “This man of deep feelings,” Chernow writes, “was sensitive to the delicate nuances of relationships and prone to tears as well as temper. He learned how to exploit his bottled-up emotions to exert his will and inspire and motivate people … His contemporaries admired him not because he was a plaster saint or an empty uniform but because they sensed his unseen power.”

Chernow follows this theme through more than 800 fascinating pages. He touches repeatedly and masterfully on topics well-known to scholars — Washington’s cold and difficult relationship with his mother (“the lifelong whetstone of his anger”); his anxious, avaricious attitude toward money; his luck as a general; his obsession with his clothing and his flair for theatrical self-presentation. But in such a full-scale, cradle-to-grave biography, these familiar topics gain energy from context and repetition. For Chernow, Washington’s personality is not a mystery to be solved, but a complex, hot-blooded expression of character to be traced over a long life, to be seen and understood from every possible angle.

What will a reader learn here that is new? Perhaps little in the factual way, though Chernow’s account of Washington’s evolving and tortured “moral confusion over slavery” is fresh and important. From the vantage point of Mount Vernon, some readers may find Jefferson and Madison diminished figures. Others may be shocked by the venomous partisanship, conspiracy theories and “lethal political atmosphere” of Washington’s last years, far too reminiscent of our own cankered time. (It is hard to believe that Washington’s rabid critics could seriously accuse him of being a British double-agent during the Revolution.)

But Chernow’s narrative is so rich, its scale so massive and epic, that what is new fits seamlessly into the wider picture. The final impression a reader will take away — his or her lasting image of Washington — will be profound and dynamic. Chernow has gone into Washington’s world, almost into his mind, and inhabited it. Under his gaze, from the very first page, that world begins to speak and stir, and great Washington steps before us, as if on an enormous stage, distant but clear, breathing. If I have not said so already, this is far and away the best life of George Washington ever written.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>