There’s no disputing George Washington’s importance in American history, but recent biographers have diverged on the first president’s greatness. Many see in Washington an irreplaceable figure for the establishment and preservation of the early American republic, while some paint him as a shameless self-promoter whose fame depended more on good fortune than on skill and character.
It’s doubtful that Ron Chernow would have devoted 817 pages to Washington: A Life if he subscribed to the latter view, but Chernow’s detailed dissection of his subject all but guarantees that readers will encounter more than just a glowing review of Washington’s accomplishments.
Readers will encounter the warts: military misjudgments, occasional “anger management” issues, a mixed record on slavery. But Chernow’s overall picture reminds us how Washington united 13 disparate colonies — later, independent states — around a common cause, then helped those states establish a new form of government that has lasted for more than two centuries.
George Washington possessed the gift of inspired simplicity, a clarity and purity of vision that never failed him. Whatever petty partisan disputes swirled around him, he kept his eyes fixed on the transcendent goals that motivated his quest. As sensitive to criticism as any other man, he never allowed personal attacks or threats to distract him, following an inner compass that charted the way ahead. For a quarter century, he had stuck to an undeviating path that led straight to the creation of an independent republic, the enactment of the Constitution, and the formation of the federal government. History records few examples of a leader who so earnestly wanted to do the right thing, not just for himself but for his country. Avoiding moral shortcuts, he consistently upheld such high ethical standards that he seemed larger than any other figure on the political scene. Again and again the American people had entrusted him with power, secure in the knowledge that he would exercise it fairly and ably and surrender it when his term of office was up. He had shown that the president and commander in chief of a republic could possess a grandeur surpassing that of all the crowned heads of Europe. He brought maturity, sobriety, judgment, and integrity to a political experiment that could easily have grown giddy with its own vaunted success, and he avoided the backbiting, envy, and intrigue that detracted from the achievements of other founders. He had been the indispensable man of the American Revolution.