“Washington: A Life”
I began my reading of presidential biographies with the man who was the first president of the United States, George Washington. I learned a lot from Chernow’s book, including Washington’s miraculous survival as long as he did, politically as well as literally.
From the very beginning of Chernow’s book, it feels as though George is condemned to live a very short life by today’s standards, as both his father and grandfather died before they were 50, and a favorite brother who served as father figure did not live to see 40. George would see the passing of all of his siblings, and lost even his step-children far too young. Martha, mother of two, was a widow when she met George, meaning she, too, had been significantly touched by death in a time when life expectation globally was under 40. This, to me, makes the achievement of greatness even more awesome, as it is interwoven with such sorrow.
George’s military career began during the French and Indian War, or the Seven Year’s War between Britain and France over colonial territory. His commanding officer at first ignored Washington’s suggestion of how to fight the American Indians, then aligned with the French. This made Washington a target more than once, but as his future friend and doctor James Craik observed:
“I expected every moment to see him fall. His duty and station exposed him to every danger. Nothing but the superintending care of Providence could have saved him from the fate of all around him.”
Washington and others concurred:
“By the miraculous care of Providence that protected me beyond all human expectation, I had 4 bullets through my coat and two horses shot under and yet escaped unhurt.” In a stupendous stroke of prophecy, a Presbyterian minister, Samuel Davies, predicted that the “heroic youth Col. Washington” was being groomed by God for higher things. “I cannot but hope Providence has hitherto preserved [him] in so signal a manner for some important service to his country.”
Fifteen years later he encountered an Indian chief who distinctly recalled seeing him at the battle by the Monongahela and told how he had ordered his warriors, without success, to fire directly at him. The chief had concluded that some great spirit would guide him to momentous things in the future.
George was no stranger to illnesses, many of which claimed the lives of other, less fortunate souls, including his oldest half-brother. While the trials of the battlefield could not bring Washington down forever, neither, apparently, could disease:
By the age of twenty-six, he had survived smallpox, pleurisy, malaria, and dysentery. He had not only evaded bullets but survived disease with astounding regularity.
During the American Revolution, Washington found himself placed at the head of an untrained, underfunded army that saw constant changeover due to one-year enlistments. He repeatedly found himself in charge of a company that was nothing more than a mosaic of state militias, each one poorly dressed, poorly equipped, and hardly able to get along with the other. He became an expert bluffer due to his lack of real military strength. An early battle in New York took a disastrous turn, and colonial army casualties reached over 200. In a statement that could have been repeated many times in the years to come, Washington reportedly said,
“What brave fellows I must this day lose!”
The winter intermissions led to a number of deaths that rivaled those in battle, as indicated by the grueling encampment at Valley Forge. Washington and his officers put down an insurrection among his troops during the bitter cold. He later dodged a British plan to kidnap him. These events were ways, other than bombs, bayonets, or gunfire, that Washington could have succumbed to the Revolutionary War.
Yet he survived it all, which led to a reverence of him by the colonial people. He became America’s first superstar celebrity. This meant that when war ended and he returned to his estate, Mount Vernon, he and Martha had little time to themselves.
Thoughts of Mount Vernon gave Washington peace during his time away in the revolution. But more often they gave him stress, as he micro-managed operations there, watching his fortune deteriorate to almost nothing by the time he became president, while also leading the continental army. Upon his return, a parade of visitors, mostly uninvited, streamed in to meet the new country’s hero. Unwilling to turn away a visitor, he let them in and fed, housed, and entertained them, further taxing his already tested income. The absence of peace under his own roof, and the dwindling of his wealth would be enough to put many other people in an early grave. Not George Washington.
Though he relinquished the reins as general after the war ended, he was again called upon to lead his country, first as president of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and then as president of the new nation. It is America’s highest office, one that few have thick enough blood to hold. It even tested Washington’s.
He took the role with the intention only to serve a couple of years, long enough to get the country off to a solid start. He faced two more health scares that might have taken his life:
“Within the last twelve months,” he told David Stuart, “I have undergone more and severer sickness than thirty preceding years afflicted me with, put it altogether.”
At the same time, a rift developed within his own cabinet, and two separate parties began to take shape. He may had been elected president by unanimous vote, but decisions being made during his administration were far from agreeable to all. Despite increasing attacks in the press that included accusations of a desire for monarchy, Washington was convinced not only to complete his term, but to serve a second, because the country still needed that stability. Shortly into his second term, however, he regretted staying, as the attacks reached despicable new lows. Eventually Washington’s closest staff members would all resign: Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, and Secretary of War Henry Knox, while his attorney general died in office, and he was forced to replace them at a time when few wanted a place in an increasingly mistrusted government. Yet he again conquered the challenges he faced, and left office by his own choice after the second term, setting a precedent for all future presidents until FDR. He had again miraculously survived adversity, this time politically.
Finally retiring for good to Mount Vernon, Washington had only a few years to enjoy it. In the end, it was likely doctors that finally killed him, as he came down with a terrible throat infection that was treated with the crude medical practices of the time.
Throughout all of his noteworthy and powerful positions, Washington tried to maintain a humble appearance that showed no sign of ambition, and was largely successful until the fears that emerged during his presidency. Of his ascension to President, Chernow writes:
Things had proceeded much as Washington had wished: instead of seeming to clutch at power, he had let it descend slowly upon his shoulders, as if deposited there by the gentle hand of fate.
For his death, he had prepared a small crypt for himself and Martha, that called out for no attention at all, and it was found to be in deplorable condition many years later. But today they rest under a new memorial, and tributes to George Washington can be seen everywhere. The country that owes its existence in more ways than one to George Washington now honors him in a way that makes the vast parade of visitors to Mount Vernon look ridiculously small. Today, the shield of Providence continues to protect Washington; he lives even now, and likely forever.
A few other notable facts:
- He never had wooden teeth. His teeth were always ivory or bone, often human teeth purchased from slaves. But they may have become stained to resemble wood.
- Like many of America’s founding fathers, he was not a proud supporter of slavery, despite owning hundreds himself. It was a circumstance handed down to him, and he saw no easy way to doff its cloak. He yearned to free his own slaves, but ultimately could only free those he owned outright, not those endowed to his estate, and did not free them, by will, until after Martha’s death. He envisioned a slow and steady end to slavery through legislative ways.
His failure to use the presidency as a bully pulplit to air his opposition to slavery remains a blemish on his record. He continued to fall back on the self-serving fantasy that slavery would fade away in future years.
He probably would not have imagined it would take nearly another century. Those that wanted no part of slavery did nothing to end it so soon after the American Revolution, knowing it would quickly lead to civil war that would have torn the newborn nation apart.
- While George is the only US President never to live in The White House, Martha, in a way, did: Her first husband’s estate was known as “white house.”
For me, Washington’s character is revealed in summary in Chapter Fifty-Six, “Citizen Genet.” The arrival in America of French Minister Edmond-Charles Genet after the slaughter in France of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette led to a terrible time for the president. Genet overstepped his authority, ignoring Washington completely, while feeding discontent among his opponents. However, when Genet was recalled to France to stand trial before a people eager to execute aristocrats and politicians, Washington offered him a hand:
Whatever his misgivings about Genet, Washington did not care to send him to his death and granted him asylum in the United States.
♦ ♦ ♦
“I’ll storm hell sir, if you’ll make the plans.”
“Better try Stony Point first, General.”