Last Fall, I endeavored to read Ron Chernow’s biography on one of the great father’s of our nation, Alexander Hamilton. After enjoying learning about the formation of the United States (although I never finished the book), I quickly bought Chernow’s “sequel,” “Washington” based on none other than George Washington, General of the Continental Army and 1st President of the United States of America. It has taken me more than a year to get around reading it, and it took me more than a week to complete!
This was an equally thought-provoking and enjoyable book. Many mythologies about George Washington persist today, even though Chernow painstakingly (I can only imagine) researched over 130,000 correspondence letters, not to mention the plethora of works that been released since. No, Washington never did cut down a cherry tree and he never threw a silver dollar over the Potomac River. But what I did learn was more interesting than that anyway.
The book breaks down into 6 parts: The Frontiersman, The Planter, The General, The Statesman, The President, and The Legend. Among the most pertinent pieces of information I learned about Washington was in reference to his military escapades: tactically, he seems to be a flop, losing more battles than he won. However, his genius as General did not come from winning many battles, but from keeping the Continental Army together: with Congress broke and hardly any revenue coming in for the new Government (if you could call it that), paying the troops and keeping them became Washington’s greatest threat. They were on 2 year contracts so as soon as he instilled the discipline needed to win campaigns with the British, they would be gone and Washington would have to start all over. One can only imagine the scene at the Valley Forge, where men with frostbitten and amputated limbs grew colder because there was an insufficient amount of coats and shoes to warm them from the elements. Later in the war, with the help of the French, Washington cornered General Cornwallis at Yorktown and “won” the Revolutionary War, one of the few battles he succeeded in the winning.
As a President, areas of Government that persist today found their genesis in Washington’s 1st and 2nd term. Such ideologies that developed were: the growing discontent between the North and the South on all kinds of issues that included slavery, taxation, etc. (in addition, the South has traditionally voted vastly different than the North, an interesting tidbit that can trace itself back to colonial times), the rise of a predominantly 2 party system (the Federalist and the Anti-Federalist in Washington’s time), the muckraking press that harassed Washington most brutally during his 2nd term, the development of Washington D.C. and relocating to Virginia from New York and Philadelphia (as Washington was the only President not to reside in the White House), among others.
But more than anything, the fact that through Washington’s entire life, he was never power-hungry nor was he envious of rising to a higher position, but through humility and graciousness, passion but coolness, he relinquished control over the Continental Army at the end of the Revolution and he reluctantly became President after much coaxing. Such attributes are rare in the world and throughout history, but gave posterity to those after. The foundations that Washington set are numerous and cannot be recollected here, but I encourage you to read about him in this outstanding book, “Washington.”