Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
2010, Penguin Books
Kindle / Paperback
Along with so many of you, I have spent the past year-and-a-half poring over the stories of our Founding Fathers in response to the musical Hamilton. I admit it: I know every song, every lyric, and I’ve been fascinated by the subtle nuances and references to historical details behind the lyrics. Complicating matters, I was steeped in these Wikipedia pages and (the amazingly comprehensive) Genius lyrics annotations all while there was a heated Presidential campaign going on.
All these factors came together to give me a new life-goal: to read a major biography on every President of the United States. And so I picked up my copy of Ron Chernow’s fantastic book Washington: A Life (for Hamilton fans, you may recognize Chernow as the author of the book on which the musical is based).
Appropriately, I finished the book this past Monday, President’s Day (previously celebrated as Washington’s Birthday). It’s the longest book I’ve ever read (weighing in at 905 small print pages), but easily one of the most enjoyable. Continue reading
“It has occasionally occurred to me when in [Washington’s] company, that if a stranger to his person were present, they would never have known from anything said by the president that he was conscious of having distinguished himself in the eyes of the world.”
—Bishop William White on Washington’s refusal to boast
Though the Constitution said nothing about an inaugural address, Washington, in an innovative spirit, contemplated such a speech as early as January 1789 and asked a “gentleman under his roof ”—David Humphreys—to draft one. Washington had always been economical with words, but the collaboration with Humphreys produced a wordy document, seventy- three pages long, which survives only in tantalizing snippets.
In this curious speech, Washington spent a ridiculous amount of time defending his decision to become president, as if he stood accused of some heinous crime. He denied that he had accepted the presidency to enrich himself, even though nobody had accused him of greed: “In the first place, if I have formerly served the community without a wish for pecuniary compensation, it can hardly be suspected that I am at present influenced by avaricious schemes.” Addressing a topical concern, he disavowed any desire to found a dynasty, pleading his childless state.
I’m currently reading Ron Chernow’s biography of George Washington, and it is astonishingly good (I believe the proper word is “magisterial”). In the book, I’m currently in the late 80s (the 1780s, that is), in the odd period after the War, but before he was drafted into Presidential politics. He’s having old friends visit him at Mount Vernon while he’s doing renovations after its long wartime neglect.
One of those friends was Washington’s first real biographer, David Humphreys–an aide of Washington’s during the War. He liked Humphreys so much that after the British defeat at Yorktown, Washington had him take the British flags from the fort and deliver them in person to Congress as the sign of victory.
“The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty…is finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people” — George Washington
[UPDATE: Part 2, “some responses & clarifications” is now posted.]
[UPDATE II: Part 3, “specific abuses of Executive Power” is up]
America’s Founding Fathers consistently referred to our country as a “grand experiment”, and on this President’s Day–and good ol’ George’s birthday–I want to meditate on this for a little bit. What was (is?) so “experimental” about America?
There seems to be a repeated “life-cycle” to nearly every great power in the entire history of the world. In the beginning of most of these nations, the “power” and authority is more or less decentralized (perhaps in a localized, tribal, or feudal system–or in our case, States).
Over the course of time, though, this “power” becomes increasingly centralized: first, into one part of society (usually to the wealthy and their businesses), then it gathers into one part of the government, and then it continues onward until it is ultimately centralized in one person.