by Ron Chernow, 2010
I’ve never been much for reading biographies, so when I saw an acquaintance pledge to read a biography for each president last year I thought, that’s nice, but not for me. It wasn’t until I read this Book Riot piece, in the midst of our political upheaval, that I started to understand the reasoning behind the challenge. I, too, have felt woefully uneducated about our country’s history and, if the “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” aphorism has any truth to it – and I believe it does – then I need to learn me some history stat. That’s how I came to decide that I, too, would embark on the challenge to read a biography of each American president and hopefully offer a little less ignorance to the world.
If my main concern was that I would find reading these biographies would be boring, Ron Chernow immediately proved me wrong with Washington: A Life. Although it took me about 100 pages to really get into the book, once Chernow started detailing George Washington’s involvement in the French and Indian War I was sold. At 800 pages, Chernow’s biography seems daunting, but he keeps an impeccable pace throughout Washington’s military career, the formation of the constitution, Washington’s presidency, and his post-presidential life. While the overall picture of Washington is a positive one, Chernow takes pains to shed light on both the laudable and less praiseworthy sides of his subject. Far from a hagiography, the book takes a fastidious stance on presenting Washington as both the irreplaceable founder and redeemer of our country while also showing the hypocrisy inherent in his dealings with slavery and Native Americans. I particularly appreciated Chernow’s endeavor for objectivity, as we so often examine only the parts of history we wish to remember.
If there are any criticisms to offer, I can only think of two. One: Chernow has a tendency to deviate from a strict chronological order in effort to link various aspects of Washington’s life. I wish he had included more years with his dates (“April of 1770” instead of “later that April,” for example) to help cement our place in time. I would occasionally lose track of when we were and had to Google the events in question to find out. This wasn’t a huge burden, but something that I don’t think the reader should have to do. (Likewise, some maps tracing Washington’s movement throughout the Revolutionary War’s battles would have been nice.) Two: Chernow occasionally leans toward imparting events with an air that I found to be a bit too melodramatic. His assertions that Washington engaged in flirtations with other women while his marriage to Martha was essentially a platonic friendship seemed out of place, as there are only two surviving letters between the two and the nature of their interactions are more speculation than anything else. As there was already so much drama amongst the founding fathers to report (Who knew?!? Someone should get on writing a musical about that or something…) any extraneous drama about Washington’s love life seemed just that: extraneous.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed my first presidential biography far more than I had anticipated. Chernow’s writing is eminently engaging, offering humorous asides – he writes that John Adams was in favor of “highfalutin” titles for their new leader – and beautiful turns of phrase – “That same day the firing of shells from both sides reached such a feverish pitch of intensity that they sketched patterns of hideous beauty in the sky,” he writes of one of the battles. And even if I found some of the drama misplaced, the infighting between Hamilton and Jefferson, and Washington and Adams, has made me eager to move on swiftly to the next biography.
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As I’m engaging in this endeavor for edification purposes, instead of for mere reading pleasure purposes, I feel it would behoove me to list some of the knowledge I’ve gained by reading about each president. Thus, I present:
5 Things I Now Know (or, Attempts at Decreased Stupidity)
- I did not know that the way the government runs today is basically the way it was set up way back in 1789. (No, I have never fully read the Constitution. Yes, I will be correcting that.) In 1787 John Jay, who would become the country’s first Chief Justice, sent Washington a letter sketching out what is essentially our current government. “Let Congress legislate. Let others execute. Let others judge,” he wrote. James Madison and others later proposed the Virginia Plan, which called for “a tripartite government and proportional representation in both houses of Congress.” Representation, however, became a hot-button issue, with Madison favoring direct election to the House of Representatives based on proportional representation and William Paterson, who would become an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, calling for a plan that saw equal representation of the states. Thus we have both – Madison’s wishes came to fruition in the House while Paterson’s saw light in the Senate. Furthermore, then, as it is today, a two-thirds majority in Congress was deemed necessary to override a presidential veto, such measures having been put in place to “forestall abuses of executive power.” And though it was not his intention, Washington set a precedent of presidents serving only two four-year terms, a pattern that was broken only by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
- The biggest fear amongst Americans was that the new government would revert back to the monarchical system of Britain. Chernow asserts that the fact that Washington had no sons perfectly positioned him to serve as the metaphorical father of the country. Because he could have no interest in a hereditary ruling, he was able to quash fears of an American monarchy. Cognizant of how such “highfalutin” titles might appear too aristocratic, he accepted the simple “President of the United States,” offered by the House. Indeed, when the governmental branches were being formed, delegates had a hard time swallowing the notion of a executive branch with the power to veto laws. This extreme opposition to an American monarchy was major factor in the feud between Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, the former accusing Washington and the latter of attempting to install themselves in such a government. Despite Washington being against a two-party system, that is exactly what emerged. The Hamiltonians were known as the Federalists, favoring a strong executive branch, banks, manufacturing, and agriculture, and doubting “the wisdom of the common people.” Jeffersonian Republicans believed in “limited federal power, a dominant Congress, states’ rights, and an agrarian nation free of the corrupting influence of banks, federal debt, and manufacturing.” Incidentally, a large number of abolitionist northerners subscribed to the Federalist party, while the Republicans were led by slaveholders. It’s also worth mentioning that even Benjamin Franklin distrusted high executive power and noted, in credit to Washington’s previous conduct, that “the first president would likely be benevolent, but he feared despotic tendencies in his successors.” (Ya don’t say, Ben. Ya don’t say…)
- George Washington was staunchly against imposing a national religion and loathed fanaticism. Says Chernow: “One thing that hasn’t aroused dispute is the exemplary nature of Washington’s religious tolerance. He shuddered at the notion of exploiting religion for partisan purposes or showing favoritism for certain denominations. As president, when writing to Jewish, Baptist, Presbyterian, and other congregations – he officially saluted twenty-two major religious groups – he issued eloquent statements on religious tolerance. He was so devoid of spiritual bias that his tolerance even embraced atheism.” Washington maintained his beliefs in religions freedom, as exemplified in a 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation. He wrote, “”For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.” Now, it remains to be seen whether this included the right for brown people to practice the religion of their choice, as he wasn’t exactly opposed to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which allowed for the government to “deport foreign-born residents deemed a threat to the peace; brand as enemy aliens any citizens of a country at war with America; and prosecute those who published ‘false, scandalous, or malicious’ writings against the U.S. government or Congress.” One need not stretch too far to see how this would easily apply to a religion deemed threatening. Although he was insistent that no citizens were beholden to any specific religion and that all “who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants,” his stance, especially in regards to Native Americans (see next bullet point), appears ultimately superficial. It would not be the only time that Washington’s stated beliefs did not match his deeds.
- It seems that America’s antipathy with Native Americans can be traced all the way back to the Native Americans’ decision to side with the British during the Revolutionary War. Chernow posits that this had less to do with ideological beliefs and more to do with the fact that, you know, the white immigrants were taking their land. In 1763 colonists were barred from settling beyond the Allegheny Mountains in Virginia, a proclamation that Washington saw as an impediment to amassing riches from the possession of land. In 1779 Washington acted against the Six Nations in an effort to intimidate them, cut off their settlements, and destroy their crops. In later years Washington attempted to convince the Native Americans to give up their hunter/gatherer lifestyle and turn to agriculture, as the Anglo-Saxons were doing. Although Washington did not openly advocate the taking of their land, his attempts to civilize them by converting them to Christianity and agriculture did them no favors. “It was, in essence, telling the Indians that to survive they had the renounce their immemorial way of life – that is, cease to be Indians and become white men.” Ultimately, Washington’s terrorizing of Native Americans “crippled their power and disrupted their communities, causing incalculable harm and making them vulnerable to forced resettlement policies later inflicted upon them by several American presidents.” If the colonists fought to preserve their representation and rights in the Revolutionary War, they could have hardly done worse by those whose land they stole in order to take that stand.
- Perhaps, the biggest point of contention in Washington’s life and administration is his specious stance on slavery. Washington was a tobacco farmer, part of an industry whose intensive labor requirements made it a good match for the slave trade. Had this not been the case, it’s questionable where he would have led the country on the topic. As it was, he acknowledged the immorality of slavery, but remained unsure as to how to abolish it without economic ruin. If the impetus of the Revolutionary War hinged on money – a fight against British taxation to pay for a war the Americans had helped win – so too did Washington’s reluctance to put an end to slavery. Chernow paints Washington as one of the kinder slave owners – refusing to break up families, encouraging overseers to allow the sick to rest and heal – but he also shows Washington’s more nefarious attitude when it came to his treatment of his human property. The fact that Washington allowed blacks to serve in the Continental Army was driven solely by the need for more bodies, and in forcing whites to recognize the skills and competencies of blacks, it served to highlight the discrepancies inherent in a society fighting for independence that denied the same independence to many of its citizens. Washington’s hypocrisy on the issue is particularly evident in his and Martha’s schemes to briefly send their slaves out of Pennsylvania before six months had passed, the state being one that granted slaves their freedom after such time of continuous residence. If Washington were indeed anti-slavery, it was only in word and thought, not in practice or proscription.
If there’s an additional thing I learned from reading this biography, it’s that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Now, onto our first vice president and president #2, John Adams.