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About a Book: Washington: A Life

“He recorded that he had killed five mallards and five bald eagles in one day – a curious triumph for the Father of His Country.”[1]

The above quote isn’t the only thing that surprised me about this book. I love biographies, especially if the author speaks of the good the person did, as well as the bad and Ron Chernow does this well. He allows Washington to be the hero as we know him today but fills in the rest of the picture of his life. Washington was not the shining perfect example of humility and bravery that I was taught growing up. He had dark sides to go along with his bright sides.  

I’m not a big fan of revised history. I’ve read around 100 biographies and memoirs and many times they tell history from only one angle. Many of the books I’ve read have been about Christians and how heroic they are, while ignoring the negative sides of their life. In my opinion too, many Christian authors do this to prove a point they are trying to make. Or if they do tell about the person’s horrible side, it’s generally only before they became a Christian. Even if God in his grace no longer sees our sins, the rest of humanity can see them far more clearly than we think. I love when we can be honest and see all sides of the human life. 

Grace sees the negative and still declares that we are loved. Grace sees that we have positive sides and we can do heroic deeds. But not everything we do is positive or heroic. Grace makes someone else the hero and allows us to live with our great and terrible natures side by side. Ron Chernow seems to be honest with George Washington as a whole person. I wish we had more authors like him who do extensive work and show positive and negative sides of a person. I don’t really like or trust heros that don’t have flaws and the first president of our country is a hero with flaws. I liked seeing the side of Washington that you don't learn in elementary.  

I like that, “by the time of his presidential inauguration in 1789, he had only a single working tooth remaining.”[2].  This makes him a real person with really bad teeth. It was said that Washington was around 6’3” and in fine physical condition – and this fact shows that his strength is side by side with weakness. He often didn't talk or smile and when he did smile, he covered his mouth because of his bad teeth.

I liked that, “he had lost more battles than he had won, had botched several through strategic blunders, and had won at Yorkstown only with the indispensable aid of the French Army and fleet.”[3].  The great General Washington had more loses than wins. The truth of this is so refreshing. He loses more than he wins, just like you and me. I like that type of hero more than the one who is always and only winning. 

I like that, “he never overcame his chronic financial anxieties, which only worsened with the distraction of his political career.”[4] He was a better President than businessman. He could run a country but couldn’t manage his own estate. His home Mount Vernon was never as successful as he would have liked it to be. Washington was never all that wealthy. His financial woes are well documented in this biography and again this is side by side with his successes of setting up a government and the office of the president, which he did brilliantly. 

I think my favorite part of the book was the portrayal of his views on human rights and slavery. He didn’t like slavery, and yet owned slaves. “He feared his own influence and agonized over exerting too much power.”[5] He also “wanted America to function as the promised land for the worlds downtrodden.”[6] And yet “he remained a notably relentless, hard-driving boss.”[7] He urged his estate manager to encourage his 83-year-old slave “to continue throwing up brick earth.”[8] and “he cautioned his overseers against the “idleness and deceit” of slaves if not treated with a firm hand.”[9] He was even mocked for holding slaves while trying to denounce slavery; “Washington still possessed “FIVE HUNDRED of the HUMAN SPECIES IN SLAVERY…that is “must appear a little incongruitous then that Liberty’s Apostle should be seen with chains in his hands, holding men in bondage.”[10]

In sum George Washington, one of our founding forefathers, had great humility and great pride. He was gracious and merciful as well as exacting and vicious. He was more colorful and human than the revised history wants him to be. This biography and the whole picture of Washington is a wonderful read about an interesting man. Our founding fathers were not clean cut or black and white, they were difficult and wonderful. They were heros and villains, just like you and just like me. The truth of individual humans is far more complex than good or bad, this biography is a good reminder of that. 

All the following are quotes from "Washington: A Life" by Ron Chernow. Published 2010 by Penguin Books

[1]Page 125

[2]Page 439.

[3]Page 457

[4]Page 705

[5]Page 442

[6]Page 474

[7]Page 705

[8]Page 705

[9]Page 705

[10]Page 758

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