The George Washington You Didn't Know

You know that George Washington was America's first president and a battle winning general in the Revolutionary War. But aside from the cherry tree, what other myths persist about the legendary figure? Host Liane Hansen talks with biographer Ron Chernow about his take on the founding father in his new book, Washington: A Life.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

You know that George Washington was America's first president and a battle-winning general in the Revolutionary War. His face is on the one dollar bill and his portraits hang in schools and museums. He did not, however, chop down a cherry tree in his youth - that's a myth.

Ron Chernow has just published an extensive biography of the father of our country called "Washington: A Life." And he joins us from our New York bureau. Welcome back to the program.

Mr. RON CHERNOW (Author, "Washington: A Life"): Thank you, Liane. You know, any biographer George Washington starts by hacking his way with a machete through an entire jungle of myths and misconceptions, starting with the cherry tree and the wooden teeth and it goes on and on.

HANSEN: His father, Augustine, or he was called Gus.

Mr. CHERNOW: Gus, or Augustine.

HANSEN: Augustine.

Mr. CHERNOW: We know relatively little about him because he dies when George is 11. We know a fair amount about his business life. He owned 50 slaves, 10,000 acres. He owned quite a number of iron ore properties in the Fredericksburg area. But he then dies leaving George, as you know, to the tender mercies of his mother, Mary Ball Washington.

HANSEN: Right. Now, tell us a little bit about Mary Ball. Mary Ball was Gus's second wife.

Mr. CHERNOW: Second wife and George was the eldest child of the second marriage. And because George's father died when George was 11, there was an expectation that he was going to function as a kind of surrogate father. Mary Washington was a very difficult, self-centered, crusty woman who always felt that she was being neglected by her eldest son.

It's amazing that, as best we know, she did not attend the wedding of George and Martha Washington. As best we know, she never visited them at Mount Vernon, even though Fredericksburg and Mount Vernon are really not very far apart. Throughout George's life, whether he's off fighting in the French and Indian War or commander-in-chief during the Revolutionary War, Mary always feels that her son is neglecting her. And there are a couple of very comical, kind of tragic comic examples.

When George is off fighting in the French and Indian War, Mary writes him a letter saying that she needs a Dutch servant and some butter. Now, George was the head of all of the armed forces in Virginia when he was in his 20s but he was supposed to drop everything on the Virginia frontier.

HANSEN: She came from - her mother as illiterate. And when Mary married George's father, there were two sons that were small. But these two sons had the chance to go to some proper English schools, his half-brothers.

Mr. CHERNOW: They went to the Appleby Grammar School in northern England. And the two brothers, particularly the eldest, Lawrence, becomes very much a role model for George because Lawrence fights with the British in the battle strangely entitled The War of Jenkins Ear off the coast of South America.

And very importantly, Lawrence Washington, the elder half-brother, gets a royal commission. This is something that George will pursue and fail to get throughout the colonial period. And more importantly, Lawrence marries a woman named Ann Fairfax. The Fairfax family was the richest and most powerful in Virginia.

Lawrence, by marrying into the Fairfax family, suddenly ushers George, who's not born into a poor family, but has been born into, let's say, second-tier gentry. Suddenly, he's ushered into the glittering world of Belvoir, which was the Fairfax mansion on the Potomac just south of where Mount Vernon is today.

HANSEN: You write that George Washington absorbed lessons from action as well as books. Obviously, he didn't get the fancy education his two half-brothers did. How would you describe his education? I mean, he had some schooling, right, but he mostly read.

Mr. CHERNOW: He had some schooling and he was very well read in, certainly, military lore and history and biography to a degree, read a lot of agricultural books. You know, Liane, what I found was very important in George Washington's life was theater. It's always mentioned that he loved the play "Cato" by Joseph Addison, which was the story of Cato, the younger, who stood up to the imperial sway of Julius Caesar, was probably the most famous play of the 18th century.

But what I discovered was that Washington sometimes went to the theater three or four times. For instance, when he was in the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg, he was constantly going to the theater. Far from being the prudish man of myth, he loved racy comedies like Richard Sheridan's "The School for Scandal."

And I was absolutely astounded, during the six years that I worked on this book, his papers are saturated with references to Shakespeare, particularly, the Roman plays and the history plays, which is what we would expect, but there are also many references to "Othello," "Macbeth," "The Merchant of Venice," and even "The Tempest."

And so I think, you know, Washington was not the great creative original thinker of a Franklin, a Hamilton, a Madison, an Adams or a Jefferson, but this was an extremely smart man who was able to latch on to the ideas of more original thinkers and really activate them and implement them. So this is someone, when the Revolutionary War comes, he is fully versed in the principles of the war. He did not have a mind to actually originate those principles, but he had deeply internalized them, knew how to use them and knew how to give very, very eloquent statement to them.

HANSEN: George Washington became the youngest official surveyor in Virginia history. How did his surveying skills help him later in life?

Mr. CHERNOW: It sharpened his eye in terms of looking at things. He didn't look at nature at all through a romantic lens. There are not many references in Washington's papers, for instance, to the beauty of nature. But there are an enormous number of references - and very knowing references - to the utility of nature. And I think that that really comes from the training as a surveyor, and of course, that's where he made his original money.

You know, we so associate him with the eight and a half years of the Revolutionary War, the four months of the Constitutional Convention, of course, the eight years of the two-term presidency. But he had nine lives. He had a very, very active and successful career during five and a half years during the French and Indian War. By the age of 23, he is the commander of all the armed forces in Virginia, and Virginia was the most powerful and populous state.

So, this is the story of a prodigy, but most people don't associate Washington with those early accomplishments. He somehow comes alive for them in 1775 when he's named commander-in-chief, and by that point he's actually well past the midpoint of his life.

HANSEN: Was he not involved in a rather disastrous military expedition?

Mr. CHERNOW: Yes. Early in the French and Indian War, really before it officially starts, a large French and Indian contingent swooped down on a rather flimsy fortress that Washington had created called Fort Necessity. The fort, for one thing, could only hold 60 soldiers. He had 300 soldiers, which meant that when the French attacked, 240 of them were standing in trenches around the outside of the fort.

Also, because it wasn't roofed, it started to rain, and so all of the weapons and gunpowder of his soldiers were drenched and disabled. So here he is, a young man, in his early 20s, he's leading a force of 300 soldiers and 100 soldiers are massacred under his command.

And I think that one of the reasons, as a military man and as a politician, Washington would become distinguished by extraordinary thoroughness. He never liked to be taken by surprise as he was on that day at Fort Necessity. So, he really is kind of marked by that experience and I think that it really does help to shape him. He will never be that unprepared again for anything.

HANSEN: Ron Chernow's new biography is called "Washington: A Life." It's published by Penguin Press. And Ron Chernow joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you.

Mr. CHERNOW: A great pleasure, Liane. Thank you.

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