When President George W. Bush finished reading Ron Chernow’s magisterial biography of George Washington in 2010, he said he stopped then and there giving the slightest thought to his place in history. If scholars could still be reinterpreting Washington’s decisions and achievements more than 200 years on, Mr. Bush decided there was simply no point in thinking about his.
Chernow’s is my favorite one-volume biography of the father of our country, and though the author modestly (and accurately) subtitles his book “A Life,” I regard it as being as close to definitive as the format will allow.
Of the three genuinely great presidents whom providence has brought to the fore – in what seems to me its conscious care for America at our critical moments – Washington is surely the greatest, if only because he had nothing to go on. History gave him, in war and peace, a blank slate on which to write, armed with nothing but his own noble character, and what Chernow calls “a clarity and purity of vision that never failed him.”
In the world’s very first revolution of a colonial entity against its mother country, Washington held together an unpaid, starving and ill-clad army which was for years the very embodiment of that revolution. When with the aid of France his army triumphed, Washington resigned his commission and went home. (Upon learning at war’s end that Washington intended to simply retire, King George III said, in an all too rare moment of perfect clarity, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”)
But then he was called back to preside over the constitutional convention which created the world’s first democratic republic, served as that new government’s chief executive for two unanimously elected terms – and went home again. He taught us how a great republic should be governed, and though we have never ceased to redefine it, we have never had to reinvent it.
Yet, as Chernow makes unmistakably clear – and this seems his whole motivation for undertaking the task – Washington was no marble statue. He was full of personal foibles, and as a statesman significantly flawed: in the end, he failed (as his country itself did) “to deal forthrightly with the injustice of slavery or to figure out an equitable solution in the ongoing clashes with the Native Americans.”
Perhaps what speaks most directly to us in our hyper-partisan, bitterly divided times is how the country broke apart politically, during Washington’s second term, into the most appalling vitriol and hatred. Those who think our modern political and cultural wars are somehow terminally unique and insoluble have much to learn from this section of the book.
History must – indeed, it cannot fail to – make optimists of us all. As we mark the 250th anniversary of Parliament’s passage of the Stamp Act on March 22nd, Ron Chernow’s Washington shows us just how far we have come, through the prism of the one person who, more than anyone else, set us on our way.
© 2015 Nick Murray. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission. Nick reviews current books, articles and research findings in the “Resources” feature of his monthly newsletter, Nick Murray Interactive. To download the current 2015 sample issue, visit www.nickmurray.com and click on “Newsletter.”