When all of the hype about Hamilton first rose up, I decided to read the book, or rather listen to the book, before watching the musical. Also, I didn’t have access to the musical until it became available on Disney+, so, I made the best of it. I was deeply impressed with Chernow’s work, and decided to return to him again for a biography of George Washington. Full disclosure, I listened to this (all 54 some hours) on Audible.
Overall Experience: I have to say that diving into this much detail about George Washington and the other Founding Fathers is an often cringeworthy experience. At times, they were all so petty, so myopic, so sneaky, and just generally unattractive. That being said, this is the first time I saw Washington as an actual human being as opposed to “George Washington” the thing. For that reason this is a valuable book.
Key Takeaways: One of the things I admire most about this biography of Washington is that Chernow does not shy away from the slavery issue, which is to say he discloses how Washington not only thought about enslaving other people but also what he did in regard to those he enslaved. For example, Philadelphia had a law that if a Black person stayed in the city for six months they could declare their freedom. The Washingtons, without telling their “trusted” slaves why, kept shuffling the slaves back and forth to and from Mount Vernon so that they would not be legally free.
Additionally, the Washingtons could not for the life of them understand why their slaves ran away, especially Martha’s trusted personal maid Oney Judge. “We treat them so well, what else could they want?” Oney Judge answered that question. She wanted to be free. Like, duh, right?
Chernow does not treat women particularly well. He frames Washington’s mother Mary as a kind of villain, but does little to see things from her perspective. Left with extensive property to manage after the death of her husband, her oldest son who she felt was obligated to take care of her immediately joined the army, as fast as little legs could carry him almost. Wouldn’t you be a little ticked off? She didn’t know he was headed toward a great destiny. He also perpetually commented on pictures of Martha Washington, noting that she was kind of ugly, kind of “round.” It is an odd an annoying trend.
Speaking of women, Chernow also does not shy away from Washington’s potential dalliances with other women, most of whom were married to friends of his. As to why some of the slaves at Mount Vernon looked so much like Washington, Chernow states that Washington seemed infertile, so maybe it was one of his brothers who had impregnated slaves. More research is needed. Historians thought it was completely impossible that Jefferson would have had relations with Sally Hemings and now we know actually it was very darned possible.
Finally, you actually end up pitying Washington at times. He seems to have been blindsided by the machinations of Jefferson and Madison, who, along with Adams, do not end up looking very good in this telling of American history. Washington went to both Virginians asking for advice or lamenting the treatment he was getting while both men were the ones leading the charge. So awkward.
I recommend this book. It is definitely a time commitment, but if you want a less polished version of our first president, it’s worth the investment.