While I consider myself a bit of a history and military buff, I have to admit that I know woefully little about Washington or the Revolutionary War. I scarcely remember it being covered in grade school (the British were mean and then we beat them) or in the one American History college class that I took (no taxation without representation). I’ve read much more early American literature than history.
So, after a little research, I decided a good choice with which to start combating my ignorance would be Ron Chernow’s highly acclaimed biography, Washington: A Life. One of Chernow’s missions in writing this biography is to do away with the musty, static image of Washington that many of us have and present a readable, one volume portrait of the flesh and blood man who led the colonies to victory over the mighty British Empire and became American’s first President.
I just finished Part I: The Frontiersman which puts me on page 136 of 960 pages (which is 14% read according to Goodreads). I downloaded the eBook from my library onto my Kobo which makes it convenient to carry around, but I do miss easy access to foot notes and the ability to underline or flag passages. I’m trying to relax and just read the book, taking only light notes as I go along.
Part I: The Frontiersman covers Washington from birth to age 26: his family history, his boyhood, his adolescence, his young adulthood. It balances his early career as a land surveyor and than as a colonial officer under the British Army during the French and Indian war (and pre-war run-ins) with his personal life: friendships, relationships, how he strove to better himself and also with his budding political aspirations (his first successful election was in 1758 to the House of Burgesses).
George Washington was raised by a single mother. His father died young. The influence of his half-brother Lawrence, who was like a second father in some ways, was tremendous, but Lawrence also died young (at 36). The wealthy and well-connected Fairfax family took George under its wing and this was the first connection that would elevate young George’s social rank and provide a life-long friendship and sense of family, it seems. Young George had lots of ambition in a time and society where rank and connections more than mattered: you couldn’t get anywhere without them. Some of his early successes and improvements in station were due to dumb luck or the untimely death of others.
George consciously worked to control his temper and conceal his emotions to be a more effective leader. Chernow quotes from Washington’s letters to show him a man of passion and great feeling. Early on Washington established what would become a life-long attitude of “disinterested service,” meaning that he didn’t want to look too ambitious even as he went after what he wanted. He also used corporal punishment on his soldiers (he ranks as an equal to some of the most brutal British officers for the number of lashings he’d order on a rule breaker) and eventually put to death by hanging those who deserted a second time (as a warning to others who were contemplating desertion). Desertion was a common problem. Washington owned slaves and his overseer lashed them as well.
What is most interesting (to me, anyway) is how Washington learns the Indian way of warfare–quick sneak attacks and then melting away into the forest–during a time when the British generals were still insisting on open field formation tactics in battle. I was aware of this learning curve from reading early American captivity narratives and other literature of the period. I didn’t realize how stubborn the British army was about adapting these methods of warfare even when British subjects with experience fighting the Indians, such as Washington, tried to advise them. The French, on the other hand, learned quickly. George did his best to work within the power structure, but he soon started annoying politicians and generals and even going behind higher ups’s backs to make his arguments.
Washington realized he’d never get the royal commission that he sought due to the prejudice against colonial subjects serving in the army (regular British officers with royal commissions outranked colonial officers of a higher rank). He resigned from the army after five years and decided to focus on his upcoming marriage to Martha, on Mt. Vernon, and on his new position in the House of Burgesses.
So far in his 26 years, Washington learned that the invincible British army was indeed defeatable, and that unity and cooperation among the colonies as well as a strong central leader was essential for success against larger enemies.
Chernow’s writing style is relaxed and easy to read. I hope the rest of the book will be as well balanced in presenting both the public and private side of George Washington. My plan is to write a post on each of the parts that the book is broken into (there are six), so check back again soon if you’re interested.
Thanks for reading!