'Washington: A Life': The Person, Not The Persona

Washington: A Life
Washington: A Life
By Ron Chemow
Hardcover, 928 pages
The Penguin Press
List Price: $40

Read An Excerpt

Just about every American knows that George Washington was commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and the first president of the United States. But very few know much more about him.  Reserved, remote, elusive and enigmatic, the childless Father of Our Country seems to many of us to have been born middle-aged, in uniform, with powdered hair and false teeth, atop his famous steed, Old Nelson. Or, as Ron Chernow writes, a stiff figure "composed of too much marble to be quite human."

In Washington: A Life, Chernow, the author of splendid biographies of Alexander Hamilton and John D. Rockefeller, tries to capture the man from Mount Vernon as his contemporaries perceived him: credible, compassionate and charismatic. In his beautifully crafted, nuanced narrative, Chernow suggests that beneath the surface of Washington's buttoned-down personality lurched not only a titanic temper, but softer emotions. The struggle to put them in their proper place had an enormous impact on his behavior as a planter, politician, soldier and slaveholder.

Washington's greatness as a military leader should not be ascribed to his skills as a strategist. After all, he lost more battles than he won. And he pushed the French to abort their operation in Yorktown, in favor of a strike against New York. Nonetheless, by sheer force of will, he held together an inexperienced, ill-equipped, often unpaid, motley, mongrel army for more than eight years — while fending off 13 selfish colonies, a feckless Continental Congress and his own doubts and depression.

Ron Chernow i i

Ron Chernow is the author of Alexander HamiltonThe House of Morgan, and Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. Nina Subin hide caption

itoggle caption Nina Subin
Ron Chernow

Ron Chernow is the author of Alexander HamiltonThe House of Morgan, and Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

Nina Subin

Chernow makes a compelling case that Washington was the only person capable of converting the Constitution, which said precious little about the presidency, into a "viable, elastic document." In doing so, he reconciled Americans to a strong executive branch, established dozens of precedents, from inaugural addresses to the title "Mr. President," and persuaded skeptics that a republican government could endure without reverting to monarchy — or anarchy.

If he was a savior, Chernow's Washington was also no saint. Anything but an egalitarian, he often railed against the squalor and stupidity of enlisted men. Though he professed to oppose slavery, he regarded bondage as a fair economic exchange, and acknowledged that, in a pinch, he would trade slaves to settle debts. Ever cautious, Washington expressed in his will an earnest wish to emancipate, but deferred a decision until his wife's death.

From beyond the grave, Washington asked family members and friends to temper public adulation by minimizing "tedious tributes." He probably didn't mean it. In any event, as they mourned, Americans turned him into a civic deity. More than two centuries later, thanks in no small measure to Chernow's book, the best single-volume biography of Washington now in print, he's once again a man. And all the more worthy of our admiration.

Excerpt: 'Washington: A Life'

Washington A Life
Washington: A Life
By Ron Chemov
Hardcover, 928 pages
The Penguin Press
List Price: $40

PRELUDE

The Portrait Artist

In March 1793, Gilbert Stuart crossed the North Atlantic for the express pur­pose of painting President George Washington, the supreme prize of the age for any ambitious portrait artist. Though born in Rhode Island and reared in New­port, Stuart had escaped to the cosmopolitan charms of London during the war and spent eighteen years producing portraits of British and Irish grandees. Overly fond of liquor, prodigal in his spending habits, and with a giant brood of children to support, Stuart had landed in the Marshalsea Prison in Dublin, most likely for debt, just as Washington was being sworn in as first president of the United States in 1789.

For the impulsive, unreliable Stuart, who left a trail of incomplete paintings and irate clients in his wake, George Washington emerged as the savior who would rescue him from insistent creditors. "When I can net a sum sufficient to take me to America, I shall be off to my native soil," he confided eagerly to a friend. "There I expect to make a fortune by Washington alone. I calculate upon making a plurality of his portraits... and if I should be fortunate, I will repay my English and Irish creditors." In a self-portrait daubed years earlier, Stuart presented himself as a rest­less soul, with tousled reddish-brown hair, keen blue eyes, a strongly marked nose, and a pugnacious chin. This harried, disheveled man was scarcely the sort to appeal to the immaculately formal George Washington.

Once installed in New York, Stuart mapped out a path to Washington with the thoroughness of a military campaign. He stalked Washington’s trusted friend Chief Justice John Jay and rendered a brilliant portrait of him, seated in the full majesty of his judicial robes. Shortly afterward Stuart had in hand the treasured letter of introduction from Jay to President Washington that would unlock the doors of the executive residence in Philadelphia, then the temporary capital.

As a portraitist, the garrulous Stuart had perfected a technique to penetrate his subjects’ defenses. He would disarm them with a steady stream of personal anec­dotes and irreverent wit, hoping that this glib patter would coax them into self-revelation. In the taciturn George Washington, a man of granite self-control and a stranger to spontaneity, Gilbert Stuart met his match. From boyhood, Washington had struggled to master and conceal his deep emotions. When the wife of the Brit­ish ambassador later told him that his face showed pleasure at his forthcoming departure from the presidency, Washington grew indignant: "You are wrong. My countenance never yet betrayed my feelings!" He tried to govern his tongue as much as his face: "With me it has always been a maxim rather to let my designs ap­pear from my works than by my expressions."

When Washington swept into his first session with Stuart, the artist was awe­struck by the tall, commanding president. Predictably, the more Stuart tried to pry open his secretive personality, the tighter the president clamped it shut. Stuart’s opening gambit backfired. "Now, sir," Stuart instructed his sitter, "you must let me forget that you are General Washington and that I am Stuart, the painter." To which Washington retorted drily that Mr. Stuart need not forget "who he is or who Gen­eral Washington is."

A master at sizing people up, Washington must have cringed at Stuart’s facile bonhomie, not to mention his drinking, snuff taking, and ceaseless chatter. With Washington, trust had to be earned slowly, and he balked at instant familiarity with people. Instead of opening up with Stuart, he retreated behind his stolid mask. The scourge of artists, Washington knew how to turn himself into an impenetrable monument long before an obelisk arose in his honor in the nation’s capital.

As Washington sought to maintain his defenses, Stuart made the brilliant deci­sion to capture the subtle interplay between his outward calm and his intense hidden emotions, a tension that defined the man. He spied the extraordinary force of per­sonality lurking behind an extremely restrained facade. The mouth might be com­pressed, the parchment skin drawn tight over ungainly dentures, but Washington’s eyes still blazed from his craggy face. In the enduring image that Stuart captured and that ended up on the one-dollar bill — a magnificent statement of Washington’s moral stature and sublime, visionary nature — he also recorded something hard and suspicious in the wary eyes with their penetrating gaze and hooded lids.

With the swift insight of artistic genius, Stuart grew convinced that Washington was not the placid and composed figure he presented to the world. In the words of a mutual acquaintance, Stuart had insisted that "there are features in [Washington’s] face totally different from what he ever observed in that of any other human being; the sockets of the eyes, for instance, are larger than he ever met with before, and the upper part of the nose broader. All his features, [Stuart] observed, were indica­tive of the strongest and most ungovernable passions, and had he been born in the forests, it was his opinion that [Washington] would have been the fiercest man among the savage tribes." The acquaintance confirmed that Washington’s intimates thought him "by nature a man of fierce and irritable disposition, but that, like Socrates, his judgment and great self-command have always made him appear a man of a different cast in the eyes of the world."

Although many contemporaries were fooled by Washington’s aura of cool command, those who knew him best shared Stuart’s view of a sensitive, complex figure, full of pent-up passion. "His temper was naturally high-toned [that is, high-strung], but reflection and resolution had obtained a firm and habitual ascendency over it," wrote Thomas Jefferson. "If ever, however, it broke its bonds, he was most tremendous in wrath." John Adams concurred. "He had great self-command... but to preserve so much equanimity as he did required a great capacity. Whenever he lost his temper, as he did sometimes, either love or fear in those about him in­duced them to conceal his weakness from the world." Gouverneur Morris agreed that Washington had "the tumultuous passions which accompany greatness and frequently tarnish its luster. With them was his first contest, and his first victory was over himself... Yet those who have seen him strongly moved will bear witness that his wrath was terrible. They have seen, boiling in his bosom, passion almost too mighty for man."

Excerpted from Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. Copyright 2010 by Ron Chernow. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Press.

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