“In surrendering the presidency after two terms and overseeing a smooth transition of power, Washington had demonstrated that the president was merely the servant of the people.”
–Ron Chernow in “Washington: A Life”
After watching the series “Turn: Washington’s Spies” last summer, I grew more interested in learning about George Washington.
He’s revered and even at times idolized in the United States. He is referred to as the “Father of Our Country,” but many of us don’t know much about him as a person.
So, I thought it would be good to truly learn about him.
I’m glad I settled with Ron Chernow’s “Washington: A Life.”
Like most other Americans, I know some basics about Washington, such as how he braved icy waters to surprise and defeat the British on Christmas in 1776 at the Battle of Trenton. The main things I knew about his presidency were the Jay Treaty and that he strived to be independent and deplored the two-party system.
I didn’t know much about his character or his personality, the details of his decision making, or the nuances of his presidency.
Chernow notes at the beginning that’s how most of us view Washington — in an abstract, general way.
Chernow does a very thorough job guiding us through Washington’s life history from beginning to end. He has some commentary here and there, but for the most part he gets out of the way and tells us Washington’s life story. Chernow doesn’t try to make him a legend, nor does he magnify Washington’s flaws either. He just recounts the story, whether it was good or bad.
Overall, I came away very impressed by Washington’s decision making, his character, and his achievements.
However, I also learned of his character defects, his failures, and also some legends of him that aren’t true.
First, the criticisms:
-Although he seemed often repulsed by slavery and talked about wanting to do something about it, he struggled with reconciling his beliefs with his economic interests. He owned a lot of slaves, and he did not set them free during his lifetime. (I will temper this criticism with some praise later on, because he did end up being much better than all the other slave-owning founding fathers.)
His great friend and protégée, the Marquis de Lafayette, worked hard to try to purchase slaves so he could free them, and he put his plan into practice. Washington praised him for his actions, but failed to follow his example (until the end).
-Secondly, Washington seemed to worry a bit too much about his homestead. The same man who stared unwaveringly in the face of death many times seemed to worry excessively often about Mount Vernon.
-Although often recognized as being a better and more humane manager and slave owner than his contemporaries, he could be difficult and lack understanding.
-Washington often complained about how he was nowhere near as rich as people thought him to be. To a certain extent, he was often cash poor but land rich. But still, he could sell property, since he owned many acres. His net worth was still very high when accounting for the land he owned. And his land’s value no doubt skyrocketed as the United States of America steadily grew and gained stronger footing. So I did find some of his complaining about how he wasn’t as wealthy as people thought him to be a bit annoying. Nonetheless, we have to cut him some slack since he was often approached for financial favors.
Next, a couple observations and notes about Washington’s limitations:
-During the war, we often know him for his courageous and gutsy move at the Battle of Trenton. At that point, the colonists has been failing regularly in their fight against the British, and perhaps the whole Revolution looked ridiculous and pitiful. We recognize Trenton today because Washington seems larger than life. The victory was his, and he didn’t have to “share” it with other leaders. It was also pivotal because it breathed much-needed life into the Revolution.
But many other victories belonged to other generals, or in some cases the victories belonged primarily to their French allies.
The Battle of Saratoga belonged to Horatio Gates, the victories in the South in which the British were pushed into retreat belonged largely to Nathaniel Greene, and the great victory at Yorktown belonged largely to the French and their Navy.
Chernow points out that Washington lost more battles than he won.
This is not to criticize Washington, but rather to remind us that no one person is so great that he can single handedly win a war or stir a movement.
-We often think of Washington as the last great political independent. In fact, he never did declare himself as being part of a political party. He constantly tried to work with both the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, often at great odds. There were times during his presidency that it seemed that his sympathies were more with the Federalists. But Washington would always quickly make sure to work with the Democratic-Republicans. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the leading Democratic-Republicans, seemed at first to despise the policies of Alexander Hamilton, who wanted to establish a national central bank, impose a whiskey tax, and consolidate the debts of the states into one federal debt.
But by the end of Washington’s presidency, they were criticizing the president himself.
And by the end of his presidency and in his parting speech, Washington took some swings at the Democratic-Republicans. To be fair, he had tried hard to work with everyone, but people nonetheless attacked him and accused him or Hamilton of being monarchists.
At that point, I think it’s safe to say he leaned more toward the Federalist Party even though he always tried to strike a nonpartisan and … dare I say … centrist position.
So for all of the talk of how non-partisan and independent Washington was, he didn’t avoid partisanship completely, and from what Chernow recounts it seems he leaned toward the Federalists at the end. Plus, Washington seemed to sign off on most of what Hamilton requested. (Chernow also wrote a very detailed biography of Hamilton, which was the inspiration for the popular 2015 musical play “Hamilton.”)
This is not a criticism. For all of our talk about non partisanship, at some point leaders need to make decisions, and it’s often impossible not to take a side.
-We tend to think of Washington as this perfectly humble person who never sought his own praise. And to a certain extent, that was true.
But make no mistake: Washington was a savvy politician who knew how to get elected and knew how to obtain leadership positions.
He did like to be respected and praised. He was a politician for 16 years in the Virginia House of Burgesses. The presidency was not his first experience with politics.
Now, my favorite part: some of Washington’s many positives.
-He has been idolized and created into a legend. Some of these legends aren’t true. (For example, Chernow says there is no evidence of a young Washington cutting down a tree and not being able to lie about it. Also, he says there is no evidence of him praying in public at Valley Forge. Chernow notes that Washington was a religious man who spoke often of God’s providence, but he would probably not be the type of person to flaunt his religion out in the open like a Pharisee would.)
However, he was extremely brave, and he did face death many times without any sign of fear. This part is not legend. He was seen standing unwaveringly as bullets flew by him or as bombs fell close to him. He did often lead his men into battle without wavering.
-Despite my criticisms of his regarding slavery, he did actually include in his will the decision to free his slaves. Chernow notes that is something that no other southern founding father did. Many talked about their disgust about slavery, but few did anything about it.
And this distinction is very important. It is one thing to vote in favor of a law even if doing so is unpopular. It is another thing to make a conscious choice that affects one’s livelihood or family. We can argue all day that Washington should have freed his slaves sooner and done more. And I would agree. But study any individual long enough, and you will find at best a conscientious person who had both moral failings and moral successes. And that’s what we have with Washington: a mere mortal, a sinner, and a man with great shortcomings, but still one of the best leaders of his time. This issue was not a mere political talking point. It was something he struggled with personally and that weighed on his conscience. If all the slaveholders of the South had his conscience and morality, there would have been no Civil War.
Chernow writes: “By freeing his slaves, Washington accomplished something more glorious than any battlefield victory as a general or legislative act as a president. He did what no other founding father dared to do, although all proclaimed a theoretical revulsion at slavery. He brought the American experience that much closer to the ideals of the American Revolution and brought his own behavior in line with his troubled conscience.”
-Also, he was a much more humane master than most other wealthy property owners at the time.
-He was a great president with many accomplishments. We often remember him as the great general, and that would have been amazing enough. But he was also a great president.
Chernow writes: “Washington’s catalog of accomplishment was simply breathtaking. He had restored American credit and assumed state debt; created a bank, a mint, a coast guard, a customs service, and a diplomatic corps; introduced the first accounting, tax, and budgetary procedures; maintained peace at home and abroad; inaugurated a navy, bolstered the army, and shored up coastal defenses and infrastructure; proved that the country could regulate commerce and negotiate binding treaties; protected frontier settlers, subdued Indian uprisings, and established law and order amid rebellion, scrupulously adhering all the while to the letter of the Constitution.
“During his successful presidency, exports had soared, shipping had boomed, and state taxes has declined dramatically. Washington had also opened the Mississippi to commerce, negotiated treaties with the Barbary states, and forced the British to evacuate their northwestern forts. Most of all he had shown a disbelieving world that republican government could prosper without being spineless or disorderly or reverting to authoritarian rule. In surrendering the presidency after two terms and overseeing a smooth transition of power, Washington had demonstrated that the president was merely the servant of the people.”
-He could have had much more power, but he turned it down. He was revered, people sang songs of him, and cities welcomed him to much fanfare. People literally idolized him in his own lifetime, even before he became president.
Despite this, when he became president he was having some financial difficulties. He could have used his fame for dishonest gain. He could have had so much more power if he wanted to. He chose not to. In fact, he really didn’t even seem to want to be president. He didn’t want a second term. He mainly wanted to go home and relax in Mount Vernon. And maybe that’s what makes him so great. He didn’t even want the job. He did it for his love of his new country.