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By (December 1, 2010) No Comment

Washington: A Life

By Ron Chernow
The Pegasus Press, 2010

Repeatedly in Ron Chernow’s new 900-page biography of George Washington, it happens, a nagging little tickling at the back of the reading mind, an almost visceral urge to go back and start over, to scrutinize the argument – in short, to read the fine print. The scene will be familiar to Bostonians: their town, having taken the first principled stand against the commercial tyranny of distant London, had been blockaded and garrisoned for years. General George Washington, now in command of the fledgling Continental Army, is impatiently waiting for the channels around the peninsula to freeze over:

On February 13, at Lechmere Point, he determined the ice had sufficiently thickened to freeze the channel all the way to Boston. Hence on February 16 he convened a war council to present a plan for “a bold and resolute assault upon the troops in Boston.” His skeptical generals unanimously voted it down, finding the plan flawed because they were short of gunpowder and couldn’t soften up the British beforehand with heavy bombardments. They also believed that Washington had overstated the size of the American forces and underrated British strength.

It’s almost there at the surface, you can almost see it … Washington’s generals suspected he’d underrated British forces and overrated his own strength – not that they all might have done those things, but only their commander-in-chief. And … had he done this intentionally? Or was he just bad at his job, worse (in other words) than they were themselves? He was unanimously overruled in his plan by men without conspicuously more military experience than his own – not a single hold-out sided with him. You study the words to see if you’ve missed any – surely this is an unusual impasse, a commander vetoed by his generals on purely practical grounds? But the narrative blankly continues: “… the veto of his generals steered the discussion to a second plan that turned into one of the war’s inspired maneuvers…”

As eager as you are to read again of that ‘inspired maneuver,’ Boston bookseller Henry Knox’s heroic hauling of Fort Ticonderoga’s 120,000 tons of guns and heavy artillery through snowstorms and over mountains in order to have them ready for secret nighttime installation on Dorchester Heights, forcing the British to evacuate the city at last, you still want to stop the narrative and shake it a little. Washington proposed crossing the frozen channel at Lechmere Point, and his generals overruled him … and? Surely a biographer must have some reaction? That which isn’t customary deserves comment, right? Surely that’s the whole reason for biographies in the first place. But here’s what we get:

There was nothing despotic in Washington’s nature, making him the ideal leader of a republican revolution, but he still had to learn when to trust his instincts and overrule his generals. It was both Washington’s glory and his curse that he was so sensitive to public opinion, so jealous of his image, and so willing to listen to others.

And there it is, that tickling again, because after all, what can this summation possibly mean? Not just the hyperbolic, hackneyed prose line, although that in itself alarms when coming from an author previously known for his verbal asperity – no, what’s the sense of it, beyond the style? Is Chernow trying to say Washington’s ‘curse’ of being so willing to listen to others was in operation that day in February of 1776? “He still had to learn when to trust his instincts and overrule his generals,” we’re told – but does that imply February 1776 was one of those times? That if Washington had only been a bit more of a despot and trusted his instincts, he’d have pressed ahead with his plan? What other implication can Chernow be making? He has to be implying something – the words didn’t just fall onto the page willy-nilly – but what is it, and why should the reader need to scrutinize the fine print for it?

Washington’s plan was lunacy on its face. Take a completely inexperienced and untrained militia over barely-frozen ice to attack a fortified city garrisoned by four regiments of expertly-trained troops under the watchful eyes of British men-of-war in Boston Harbor? Even in the incredibly unlikely event of a street-by-street victory for the Continentals, Boston – and everybody in it – would have been blown to butcher’s meat by the guns of those impregnable warships riding safely at anchor. Even without the troublesome business of miscounting troops, it was a self-evident necessity that Washington’s men should overrule him. The question isn’t why they did it (although a reader of this book could sympathize: nobody likes being misled) – why they did it is obvious once you know the context. The question is, why doesn’t Chernow supply the context?

The answer to that question is obvious too, but who wants to think it? Every reader enjoyed Chernow’s biography of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and his massive one-volume life of Alexander Hamilton is a masterpiece, readable and rigorous. There was nothing in those works that resembled the dodgy prose that we’re faced with here – in those earlier works, facts were faced head-on, and interpretations flowed from them. But the clearest interpretation of that “he still had to learn when to follow his instincts” is that in Chernow’s opinion Washington was somehow wrong to listen to his generals that day in 1776, and Chernow can’t possibly be making that case – which means he can only have one other motivation for trying.

Nobody wants to think of that motivation, not in a serious biographer of previously sound practice. But that irritating tickle persists. It starts at the book’s very beginning, when we’re told that Washington “ranks as the most famously elusive figure in American history, a remote, enigmatic presence more revered than loved” – told that, and given no apparent alternatives to reverence or love, when a conscientious historian shouldn’t even mention, much less endorse, either. Ten lines later we’re told that the desire to “venerate” Washington is “laudable.” We scrutinize for some catch, some essential qualification, but it isn’t there.

“Washington has suffered from comparison with other founders,” Chernow writes, “several of whom were renowned autodidacts, but by any ordinary standard, he was an exceedingly smart man with a quick ability to grasp ideas.” And a bit later, while Chernow is trying to tease a thread of heroism out of the debacle that was Washington’s participation in, and defeat in, the French and Indian War, we hear it again: “George Washington always demonstrated a capacity to learn from his missteps.” But it wasn’t just the autodidacts among Washington’s peers who showed none of his tendency for plodding, sententious mental groping – the college-educated men did too, and their wives, and their oldest children (both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, for example, praised the general’s valor but considered him “illiterate, unlearned, unread”), and what great note is it to praise someone’s “quick ability to grasp ideas”? Is Chernow so desperate not to cede the field on any point of praise that he needs to resort to a commendation more fit for a small child, or a trained monkey?

And where’s the truth of it in any case? The Washington who was overruled from sending an enormous French war-fleet to New York in 1781 (which would have stranded his own men without reinforcements and made the victory of Yorktown impossible) was the same Washington who was overruled from attacking Boston in 1776, and they were both the same Washington who advanced against vastly superior French forces in 1754 instead of retreating, causing both a humiliating defeat and a far-ranging political embarrassment. That’s a span of 30 years in a lifetime of only 67 years; that’s a man adamantly refusing to learn from his own plentiful “missteps” in his own chosen vocation, and there are dozens of similar examples. Chernow knows all of those examples, but he leaves it to his readers to connect them and draw the only possible inferences. Instead, he gives us the same unseemly straining rhetoric. This book is fortified with the vast array of cited sources for which Chernow is known, but what good is such diligence if it serves a pre-ordained ideology? Why bother to sift through hundreds of original documents if our only choices from the start are reverence or love?

There can be no legitimate defense of Washington the warrior, a man who contrived by his own delusions of grandeur to lose virtually every battle he ever fought. But Chernow has written a far more sprawling work than a mere military history, so the reader wonders if perhaps the smart Washington, the quick grasper of ideas, loath to repeat missteps, appears in other areas of what was a crowded life. The Washington of 1776, eagerly desiring to hush any public report (to Congress, for example, where he’d mollified potential critics by forgoing any pay for his services as commander-in-chief) of his wasting valuable men and money on the creation of a flamboyant personal corps of bodyguards? Perhaps this was an aberration, a youthful indiscretion. But it, too, happens in a straight line of hypocritical duplicity stretching from the beginning of Washington’s life to the end. In 1761, Washington was competing against a man named Adam Stephen for a seat on a land partnership for Fairfax County, Virginia. Washington convinced the sheriff overseeing the election to stampede Washington’s followers into the public polls ahead of Stephen’s (“I hope and indeed make no doubt that you will contribute your aid towards shutting [Stephen] out of the public trust he is seeking”) – and he convinced the sheriff to cover it up. Chernow calls it “an ethical short cut.”

It was a “short cut” he was still using 15 years later when lying to the public about his personal bodyguard (at an expense “which I should not wish would go forth”). Chernow calls the bodyguard corps a sensible precaution against kidnapping or assassination, but that hardly accounts for the buff blue blazers and polished cutlasses. And fifteen years after that, while President in 1791, Washington was informed that according to Pennsylvania law, any slave resident in the state for six consecutive months automatically became free. Washington was horrified: most of his Pennsylvania slaves were the dowry of his wife – he’d owe the Custis family the head-price of every one he lost to freedom. A loophole in the law said that if any slave left the state, they reverted to six month’s servitude when they returned, so Washington set about tricking his slaves into errands that took them out of the state, even for a day. “I wish to have it accomplished,” wrote the father of his country, “under pretext that may deceive both them and the public.” Chernow calls it “a rare instance of George Washington scheming.” It’s almost as if he hasn’t read his own book; there’s nothing rare at all about Washington scheming and then lying about it – he did it his whole life, as Chernow documents but denies.

And what about slavery? Surely it’s a subject too incandescent for lying rhetoric and millennial fawning. That Washington was a blundering military incompetent Chernow avoids admitting; that Washington was a hypocrite and a liar as a public man Chernow refuses to see or attributes to “short cuts”; but slavery was the great schism-point among the Founding Fathers, and Washington was at the heart of it. The man who led an army to free a nation was a life-long slaveholder, from a slave state at the heart of the American slave-trade.

the Washington family and one of their slaves, William Lee

Chernow writes, “Washington saw himself as a benevolent master who deplored cruelties practiced elsewhere.” But before the war, when he was confronted with reports of slaves being recalcitrant or lazy, Washington would have them shipped off to the West Indies (leaving their wives and children behind), where the toil and the climate combined to make the move a quick death sentence. And this, too, was not youthful inexperience: in 1793 he was threatening and doing the exact same thing, despite his lack of a despotic nature. Washington the slave owner routinely had his slaves whipped, including young girls and boys; he constantly complained that his slaves were lazy, shiftless, and stealing from him, and this miserable, evil behavior also followed him his whole life, even when, as President, he might have been expected to have more pressing concerns. Chernow makes an astounding mention of “Washington’s moral confusion over slavery” but still informs us, “Despite the enormous demands of the presidency, he continued to exercise close scrutiny of [sic] his overseers through elaborate weekly letters.” We’re told that Washington was “a tough master,” and we stand appalled as the jargon of the business seminar is adapted to the buying and selling of human beings: “In the army, in his cabinet, and on his plantation, Washington demanded high performance and had little patience for sluggards and loafers.” On his plantation, this lack of patience extended to slaves who were crippled, like young Doll who (he wrote) “must be taught to knit and made to do a sufficient day’s work of it. Otherwise, (if suffered to be idle) many more will walk in her steps.” He recommends she get instruction from a slave named Lame Peter. All the miseries of 2,000 years are crammed into names like that, and Washington rattles them off in letter after damning letter, invariably with less regard than the tone he uses with horses, heifers, and dogs. He casually orders families broken up, work quotas increased, defiant slaves whipped and beaten, runaway slaves branded or maimed, and unprofitable slaves sold.

Chernow writes, “George Washington desperately wanted to think well of himself and believed he was merciful toward the slaves even as the inherent cruelty of the system repeatedly forced him into behavior that questioned that belief.” But this is no less or other than Chernow lying to protect his idol, and this long book is, ultimately, one long litany of such lies. Washington wanted others, the public, to think well of him, but to the overseers he paid to whip and work his slaves to death, he was never anything but frank and never for an instant wore anything but the slack, dead face of the slave master. “The death of Paris is a loss,” he wrote to one overseer, “that of Jupiter the reverse.” That isn’t the sound of a system’s inherent cruelty, nor is it the sound of a man being forced into anything. There is no moral relativism here (or, indeed, anywhere): there is no indication in the vast Washington correspondence that he ever felt any hint of the ‘moral confusion’ toward slavery that Thomas Jefferson did, much less the revulsion John Adams did. Washington’s behavior toward his slaves didn’t ‘question’ his thoughts of his mercy – it utterly contradicted them.

Contrary to Chernow’s opening assertion, the problem with Washington isn’t that he’s elusive, it’s just the opposite: the kind of person he was (warrior, general, politician, slave master, friend, president) is abundantly clear – it just isn’t all that attractive. John Adams snidely referred to the massive Washington biography written by Chief Justice Marshall as “a mausoleum, 100 feet square at the base and 200 feet high,” and many other critics faulted it for sanitizing its subject to the point of apotheosis. Later biographers (and of Washington they have of course been legion) have looked with kindly disdain on such mausoleums as those of Marshall and Parson Weems; the nation was young, the line of defense goes, and young nations need their heroes. To a limited and very arguable extent that may be true; however, it can only apply to young nations. Once maturity is achieved, history takes ironclad precedence over heroism, however attractive. “History has no warrant to tamper with right and wrong,” wrote a great historian, “or to brighten the character of its favorites by diminishing one shade of the abhorrence which attaches to their vices.” But William Prescott also called the historian’s art a search for the truth, and in 2010 we must be hopelessly confused by a good historian’s sustained attempt to disguise the truth with evasions unworthy of a tax-dodger on the witness stand. And we must scorn that historian’s book, despite all the accolades it may garner from those who prefer the poisonous clean myth to the plain salvation of fact. The world doesn’t need another saint’s life of George Washington. I hope this one is the last, but I fear otherwise.

Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.