Washington-A LifeOf all the founding fathers, George Washington is the least understood. He comes out of history as the marble-man—about as approachable and warm as the marble sarcophagus that entombs his bones at Mount Vernon. He is everyone’s hero. But he is a hero of god-like stature—almost inconceivable that anyone like him could have actually existed in flesh and blood. And yet he did. And Ron Chernow, more than any other Washington biographer, has captured the essence of this very real man.

Chernow’s Washington: A Life is masterfully written and rightly deserving of all the awards it won, including the 2011 Pulitzer Prize. A storyteller of the first order, Chernow presents Washington in all his complexity and heroic stature. Chernow uphold the conclusion that Washington was the indispensable man during the American Revolution and the establishment of the republic. There were times, during the war, the Constitutional Convention, and his administration that Washington single-handedly held the country together. And Chernow depicts these occasions with a careful eye toward the history—including the testimony of Washington’s contemporaries—due reverence, and a sense of how close the experiment in self-government came to failing.

Chernow not only gives us the heroic Washington, we also get the very human Washington. Though Washington hid behind a steely façade, he was a man of deep emotion and compassion. He lived with the scares of losing many beloved family members early in life. He never fully recovered from the unrequited love affair with Sally Fairfax—a woman he could never have because she was happily married to one of Washington’s close friends. Despite his untiring care, his mother’s lifelong disappointment in and disapproval of him festering like a poison thorn. He weep uncontrollable when his step-daughter, who suffered from epilepsy, died. He was devoted to but frustrated by the antics of his step-son and grandson. Compassionate toward his slaves, he was tortured over the issue of slavery. Like most men of this time and station, however, Washington ultimately compromised his principles of the moral evils of slavery—and Chernow rightly chides Washington for such callous cowardice.

Washington remained embarrassed by his lack of formal education. He was always mindful of his appearance, particular the appearance of his mouth, which was often misshapen by his dentures. A man of insatiable ambition, Washington reached the highest of military and political power. And yet, he still stung over the slights received as a young militia colonel during the French and Indian War when Great Britain wouldn’t give him a commission in the royal army. As president, he felt the pain of partisan attacks on his character and never forgave the men, two Virginians, who were behind writing some of the most scurrilous articles for partisan newspapers—Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

All of this and more is found in Chernow’s Washington—a book that will stand the test of time. It will be the benchmark by which all other single volumes of Washington’s life will be measured—and quite possibly, for any multi-volumes of Washington’s life. Chernow has left us a gift: a portrait of the great man in all of his grander and humility.

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