Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Washington:

He didn’t just write Hamilton you know!

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

Washington was “land” rich but not often in the liquid sense. At times, he had to personally go to tenants on his land and collect. He was also obsessed with how his own land was cultivated and regularly sent extremely detailed instructions back to his groundskeepers whenever he was away.

My Take on Washington:

Chernow is now known for his extremely in-depth portraits of historical figures. This one is no exception as he really digs into Washington’s life and spares no details. Chernow is one of the best at framing a perspective on his subject while backing it up with real details from their lives. An example, as mentioned above, is Washington’s mother was a real pill. Chernow pulls directly from their correspondence to give the reader the insight needed to accept his viewpoint.

The most interesting times are obviously during the American Revolution and his presidential years. Specifically, Chernow doesn’t shy away from highlighting Washington’s many missteps in tactical decision making during the war. He does detail just how exceptional his leadership and logistical decision making made the difference. During his presidential years, Chernow digs into the estrangement with Thomas Jefferson as Washington often took Alexander Hamilton’s side.

Chernow does his best work as a historian with how he handles slavery in his book. While often you will find authors will either try and explain away slavery (“he was nicer to his slaves than most!”) or will condemn him with our modern understanding, Chernow balances between the two viewpoints and does a great service to illuminating the contradiction. Chernow shows this dichotomy by putting the historical context around slavery while also making it quite clear his more humane contemporaries (John Laurens/Marquis de Lafayette) urged him to purge himself of the horrible practice.

Verdict:

It is a must read if you want to really know George Washington and his life from beginning to end. If you are a casual reader of this time period, don’t start here. This book crosses the 900-page mark and these are pretty packed with details in a chronological order. While all of these pages are a great read, if you are looking for something nice and breezy, man did you come to the wrong place. Buy it here!

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Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow