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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars absolutely first rate popular bio, 27 Nov 2010
By 
rob crawford "Rob Crawford" (Balmette Talloires, France) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Washington: A Life (Hardcover)
Chernow has done it again. Though many pundits complain that America lacks "public intellectuals", Chernow offers a wonderful reading experience that is both academically rigorous and yet popular biography.

Washington has always seemed to me like an Olympian who rules from the mountain rather than a general, a rough and tumble pol, or even a businessman. He has certainly never appeared very human in my schoolbooks. We Americans have been brought up on so many ridiculous myths - I remember modeling my behavior on the cannot-tell-a-lie story about the chopped cherrie tree - but he is also seen as a neutral presider over the innumerable factions of bickering revolutionaries, i.e. the ultimate honest broker (I have never met one!). This wonderful biography truly penetrates the cloud around him to reveal the man.

Alongside his career and times, Chernow investigates Washington's motivations, emotional life, and methods. Washington was ambitious, shrewd, and incredibly self-disciplined. But, in contrast to his popular image, he was also passionate, complete with a fiery temper that he learned to keep in check with great difficulty. And he made plenty of mistakes.

As the book unfolds, we see that Washington learned certain lessons from experience rather than books, shaping his attitudes in a uniquely pragmatic and practical way. Though born to a plantation family, he was not the prime heir, so had to make his way more or less on his own; to his great regret, he had very little formal education.

After working as a surveyor, he began his career under the British military. In this way, he was schooled directly on how to fight on American soil, which was unlike the European theatres and served him well in his tactics when he later fought the British. On a personal level, he came to despise aristocratic privilege, which all too often reserved position and advantage to the mediocre and undeserving. This was a clear sign of both his self confidence and his ego. This also was a tumultuous beginning for him. Indeed, he oversaw the massacre of a French envoy by Indian allies, which some claim was the spark that led directly to the Seven Years War. He also suffered many significant defeats, though emerged something of a hero.

Then Martha enters the picture. Benefiting from his reputation, he made a crucially important marriage to the widow, whose holdings elevated him the status of a gentleman farmer; for the next 16 years, he operated at the pinnacle of Virginia colonial gentry. Instead of leading an idle pseudo-aristocratic life style, he applied himself to his business, with real estate deals and experiments in the management of his estates, in particular cultivating a variety of crops rather than mono-crops such as tobacco, which exposed his neighbors to suspiciously fluctuating prices. Observing the debt that was ruining his cohorts, he came to distrust both faraway officials dispensing favors and merchants who promised to manage everything from the delivery of extremely expensive European goods to the sale of his crops, he moved towards self sustainability.

His experience as a business man convinced him of the need for independence and self-reliance: alone among the founding fathers, he died a very rich man with minimal debt. When the time came for the revolution, he was ready to risk everything to preserve his political and economic autonomy. Of course, his choice was helped by the real estate holdings he had in Ohio, which the British were refusing to allow him to exploit!

Risking everything he had achieved, Washington took over the disorganized and poorly funded American rebel forces. After his early catastrophic defeat in New York, he concluded that he would have to harass the British to gradually wear them down rather than confront them directly in the field (as they expected he would, given the European war traditions of the time).

This led to an extremely long conflict that was aggravated by the incompetent confederation government. From this, Chernow writes, he concluded that the US needed a strong executive with the power to tax and act effectively rather than relying on Congress or fractious state legislatures to lead. This explains very clearly why he championed the Federalists later. Once again, this was counterintuitive to conventional wisdom: the colonies had revolted against the British monarchy's policies and taxation, it was said, and did not want to replace it with another monarchical authority.

At the victory, Washington retired with unsurpassed prestige, yet aghast at the chaotic mismanagement of the confederation government. To remedy this, and putting his place in history as the country's liberator in jeopardy, he joined the Constitutional Convention at its very start. As a savvy pol, Washington had waited a long time to commit himself as he examined his options. In an interesting aside, Madison tutored him in the political ideas and vocabulary then current. From his experience as a leader and executive, Washington had strong ideas of what he wanted to do, but he shrewdly relied on his more learned colleagues for the right way to describe and sell it politically, lending his prestige yet appearing majestically above the fray and hence the logical choice to become the first president. That is true political artistry.

As the pioneer exemplar of a new kind of republican government, aware of the value of symbolism, Washington established many of the norms of executive power and practice that have survived intact to the present day. Fearful of the country fragmenting into competing sovereign powers, he also strove to manipulate the political forces into a durable union. This entailed avoiding to address the issue of slavery and the economic system it supported, which led directly to the Civil War. Nonetheless, by delaying the reckoning for a few generations, he may have prevented the union from immediate (and permanent) disintegration.

Another part of his legacy, which Chernow covers in wonderful detail, is his careful though unequivocal support of Hamilton and the Federalists. With them, Washington created the foundation of the federal system of government that has evolved until the present today. Though still controversial, the Federal Government can raise funds, maintain an army, take precedence over states' prerogatives, and serve as a decisive economic actor even though the constitution does not specifically allow it. Once again maintaining the appearance of even-handed distance, Washington was the real mastermind behind the protean Alexander Hamilton, his political instrument of action. Chernow truly does justice to the immensity of this undertaking - it was the first republican government to rule over such a huge and socially disparate country.

Chernow's book is extremely long and dense, a genuine masterpiece that will be the definitive treatment of this amazing life for a generation to come.

Recommended with the greatest enthusiasm. This cannot disappoint.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars George Washington Viewed from a 21st Century Perspective, 11 Jun 2011
By 
Donald Mitchell "Jesus Loves You!" (Thanks for Providing My Reviews over 124,000 Helpful Votes Globally) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Washington: A Life (Hardcover)
"No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you a father of many nations." -- Genesis 17:5 (NKJV)

This is the best Washington biography I've read.

We are fortunate to live in a time when more can be known about George Washington than during most of the last 200 years as large quantities of his papers have been recently published. This book makes good use of these documents.

If you find it hard to perceive a human being within the patriotic stories about George Washington, Ron Chernow's Washington: A Life will add lots of human perspective for you. Unlike many biographies of the founders of the United States, this one attempts to portray the warts along with the sources of praise. I especially liked the way that Mr. Chernow carefully described Washington's private views and actions, publicly expressed opinions, and inactions to show inconsistencies in his thinking and life concerning slavery and Native Americans.

Many biographies tend to describe a fixed character, while we all know that people often change and mature in unexpected ways. Mr. Chernow describes an extremely ambitious young man who aggressively sought advantage . . . and was concerned about making a good impression. As a result, Washington learned to restrain himself in public in ways that made his leadership more acceptable, including not giving away his inner thoughts. Having perceived that he was rarely a quick study, he worked hard to find good solutions and learned the patience of taking the time to do so. In the process, he developed a maturity in decision making that put him ahead of his peers. Above all, he was a patient man who stayed focused on the right goals in serving others. As such, he was an ideal person to draw together those with less vision and commitment . . . especially during difficult times.

I came away with a heightened appreciation for Washington as a principled leader, something we don't see very often in today's world. I also learned a lot about things I should teach those who want to improve as leaders. That's something I can rarely say about a biography of a statesman.

Bravo, Mr. Chernow!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A good, thorough read., 14 Sep 2012
By 
J. Bowen "Jamie Bowen" (Hampstead London) - See all my reviews
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Ron Chernow planned to write "as detailed a one book account of Washington as you can" when he wrote this book, and he's succeeded with that goal I think.

This book covers all his life, from his birth and early life in Virginia, to his death after 2 terms as President. As an Englishman, I'll admit that I don't know much about Washington, but I'm reasonably well read about the subject, and this book answered all the questions, and misunderstandings I had about Washington.

The one thing that this book didn't disabuse me of was my wariness of Thomas Jefferson. This wariness has developed through a bunch of books I've read about the "founding fathers," and this book didn't affect my view of him. That said, it's till a good book.

In short, if you want to read one book about Washington, this is probably as good a book as you'll find.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A truly excellent biography of an inscrutable man..., 7 Nov 2013
By 
C. Ball (Derbyshire) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Washington: A Life (Paperback)
George Washington may well be the most famous American in history. Practically everyone in America sees his face every day - on walls, in books, on TV, in movies, on the one-dollar bill. Everyone knows the stories - the wooden teeth, the cherry tree, 'I cannot tell a lie', Valley Forge, the crossing of the Delaware. George Washington looms over American history like a monument - literally. He's inescapable, as much man as myth.

And yet there is very little life to his myth. Most of the legends that have grown up around him are patently untrue - the aforementioned cherry tree and the wooden dentures just two examples. George Washington is as massive and ever-present as his monument in the city that bears his name and about as human. There is no personality to his myth. He stares out from his portraits as impassive and inscrutable as stone. So tackling a biography of George Washington is no mean feat. Many have tried - he is, after all, the Father of his nation, the Founding Father of Founding Fathers, the one without whom perhaps none of it, not the Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, the War, the Constitution, the Presidency, would have happened.

Happily this biography by Ron Chernow more than does him justice. The George Washington in these pages comes alive - a young man ambitious, impulsive and eager for glory; a soldier jealous of his rank and reputation and embittered at an Empire that had no respect for colonial troops; a Revolutionary general who doubted his ability to succeed in such an enterprise as the Revolutionary War; a man consistently reluctant to assume the burdens of power and leadership thrust upon him; a childless husband who adopted his wife's children as his own, and many more besides, who constantly struggled with debt yet tried to maintain the image of a Virginia gentleman; a slaveholder who professed to abhor slavery; and a man who at various point held more power in his hands than anyone alive on earth at the time and repeatedly and deliberately gave it up after his duty was done.

George Washington is perhaps a difficult man to like - even to those who knew and loved and admired him he maintained a certain amount of distance, and even in his own day there were those who found it difficult to penetrate the mask to reach the man beneath. But it is almost impossible not to admire him, and to wonder how different the course of history might have been had he not apparently been protected by the hand of what he called Providence.
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5.0 out of 5 stars An authoritative gripping biography of George Washington, 24 April 2014
This review is from: Washington: A Life (Paperback)
Washington: A Life is a comprehensive and detailed biography that is based on solid research and is entertaining to read. Chernow draws upon, among other sources, the Papers of George Washington, which have been assembled and catalogued in recent years at the University of Virginia, consisting of 130,000 letters and other documents. The book is written chronologically but is divided into chapters based around mini-themes. I had no difficulty finishing the book despite its length, as the author does a masterful job of distilling the huge volume of source material and presenting it as a clear and very readable story that provides deep insight into who Washington was as a man, the events that shaped is life and his character and the central and multi-faceted role he played in early American history.

In terms of minor criticisms of the book, I felt that the coverage of Washington's transition from a planter to a revolutionary was abrupt and poorly handled, and in my view this is perhaps the most critical phase of Washington's life to capture in order to understand him as a man and what drove him as a leader of the American Revolution. Many pages are devoted to describing his frustration with Britain based on his personal financial issues and his military status when he was a soldier, but at the same time he is shown during this phase as being conservative, well-connected and not particularly intellectual. There are hints that he was influenced by other prominent Virginians at the time who were more intellectual and radical, although the only one specifically cited in the book as influencing him is George Mason. Only later in the book are there references to the revolutionary pamphlets that had been circulating at the time and clearly must have influenced him. This weakness is illustrative of a more general point that the book would have benefitted from just a few more paragraphs here and there providing more context of the historical events.

Overall, I have no hesitation in strongly recommending this as a first-rate biography that is an illuminating and enjoyable read. One should not be put off by the book's length. Particularly because throughout American history Washington has been viewed by Americans as more of a mythical figure than a real human being, this biography does a great service in providing insight into the real man that underlies the legend.
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5.0 out of 5 stars perfect for kindle, 19 Mar 2013
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With both the hardback and kindle versions, I have something to keep and something I can hold easily! Every random page opened makes one want to read on.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Compelling reading spoiled by the author, 8 Dec 2012
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An excellent narrative of the life of George Washington from childhood to Revolutionary War to presidency. Anecdotes are well researched although at times, in my opinion, inclined to unsubstantiated extrapolation. That the author holds Washington in very high regard is evident. That he is not so keen on anyone who didn't is also evident.
Al in all, this is an excellent book for those wanting to know more about Americas first President.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Unlikely to be bettered, 24 Oct 2013
This review is from: Washington: A Life (Paperback)
I enjoyed this book. It is very detailed and well researched, good on Washington's own life as well as his momentous times. The author shows how pivotal Washington was to the emergence of the United States, and how he was truly a great man, for all his human failings. I particularly like that the author deals head on with the subject of slavery, as well as other aspects of Washington's life that would be inconvenient if one wanted to glorify him simplistically. The author never does so, and one can readily see why the book won a Pulitzer Prize.

For all that, I give this book only a 4 star review, as I think it is not quite on a par with the very best biographies that I have read, perhaps because it is just a little too long for my liking.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars, 17 Aug 2014
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This review is from: Washington: A Life (Paperback)
and i never tell a lie
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Washington: A Life
Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow (Paperback - 1 Dec 2011)
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