Part 4 (The Statesman): Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

Bust of Washington by Jean-Antoine Houdon

I’ve let Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life languish for almost a year. I vowed to finish this book in January, then February, and now it’s March. I’ll aim to finish it . . . this spring.

 As I’ve said in earlier posts, this really is a good book. I’ve never put down a book for this long and come back to it. Not one that I still consider myself “to be reading.” I think one of the challenges is that I’m reading it in eBook format and don’t have the reminder of a physical book sitting there and whispering read me! But this is an easy book to read in chunks as it’s broken into parts that cover significant periods of Washington’s life, so it’s easy to pick it up again after having left off at the end of a section.

Part 4 covers the years between Washington’s return to Mount Vernon after his service during the Revolutionary War and leaving it again to serve as president. After the war Washington intended on retiring to private life, but due to his world-wide fame as the man who lead the new country to freedom, he was bombarded with correspondence, requests for appearances, and regular visits to his home. Due to the custom of the time, Washington’s status, and his own sense of societal rank, he was obliged host these guests. As a result, his home had the feeling of a busy inn, with people constantly coming and going.

It seems that Washington had a temper when it came to money issues, and this section emphasizes his life-long challenges with money. Washington was “Habituated to profligate spending and a baronial lifestyle.” Even after the war to end British political oppression, he loved and followed British fashion and maintained “his old aristocratic habits” such as engraving his coat of arms on his new silverware. He behaved much differently among different people: merry and convivial with some, or silent and morose with those for whom he didn’t care. Such behavior has made it challenging for historians to form a coherent portrait of his personality.

Washington’s finances rested on his plantation, and the management of the five farms that made up his plantation had suffered in his absence. He set about righting things, but there were hard years due to insect attacks, drought, and some rough winters, so that by the time he was voted president, he had to take out loans, pester a widow to pay up on her debts, and threaten some of his long-time servants with dismissal if they didn’t perform at higher levels. I imagine his slaves had it much rougher during these times as well. Washington is considered a pioneer in agriculture. He experimented with crops, crop rotation, various types of barns and mills, and is even known as the Father of the American Mule.

During this time Washington was “a far more voracious reader than is generally recognized.” He wasn’t a Renaissance man of the level of Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin, but he did have a broad range of interests, from agricultural treatises to biography to literary writers such as Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, John Milton, and Oliver Goldsmith. In 1783 he ordered copies of Voltaire’s Letters to Several of His Friends, John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He also ordered biographies of Charles XII of Sweden, Louis XV of France, and Peter the Great of Russia. In 1785 he entertained Catharine Macaulay Graham for ten days. Graham was a well-know British historian and the two engaged in serious political discussions during her visit.

On the issue of slavery, Washington may have complained about slavery privately, but he didn’t have “the courage to broadcast his views or act on them publicly.” He spoke and wrote of slavery as a system that needed to end, but did so in a way that made it seem like the system was a burden to HIM, rather than a burden to the human beings that he enslaved. His take was that he couldn’t afford to hire more help and so he relied on slaves, and slaves not only reproduced and created more slaves, they needed to be clothed and fed and attended to medically when necessary. Indeed, he considered slavery a “fair economic exchange: he clothed and fed his workers and ‘in return, I expect such labor as they ought to render.’” 

I know it serves little purpose to judge the past by contemporary standards, but I still find it mind-boggling that men who were so revolutionary in their thinking about freedom and equality maintained the institution of slavery (as well as other forms of discrimation). As Chernow writes on the matter, “talk was cheap.” Chernow writes some wonderfully direct statements on the issue: “The idea that abolition could be deferred to some future date when it would be carried out by cleanly incremental legislative steps was a common fantasy among the founders, since it shifted the burden onto later generations.”

And that burden ended up costing a lot of lives in the Civil War. Here are some stats:

  • Revolutionary War: 200,000 men fought and 25,000 died in battle, which was about 1% of the population.
  • Civil War: 3,000,000 men fought and 600,000 died in battle, which was about 2% of the population.

Chernow presents a detailed picture of how Washington carefully constructed his public persona against the backdrop of a new country that had found a hero during the war, one that they didn’t want to let go of during peace time. Washington may have claimed that he’d rather “glide gently down the stream of life, leaving it to posterity to think and say what they please of me, than by an act of mine to have vanity or ostentation impute to me,” but Chernow doesn’t mince words when he writes, “For all of Washington’s professions of modesty, the thought of his high destined niche in history was never far from his mind. Few historical figures have so lovingly tended their image.”

Part 5 is the big one: it’s all about Washington’s presidency.

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