George Washington Bio Shows Fancy Dresser, Nutty Mom: Interview

The cover jacket of "Washington: A Life" by Ron Chernow. Source: Penguin Group via Bloomberg

He really did have trouble with his teeth, but everything else most of us know about George Washington will need some readjustment now that Ron Chernow has produced his splendidly detailed biography of the first president of the United States.

Decades and hundreds of pages pass before the dashing young military prodigy of the French and Indian War turns into the resolute general, and then, finally, the wise, unflappable leader of the nation.

Along the way, we meet his unhinged mother, his generous wife, friends, retainers, villains -- and some of the smartest men who ever breathed free air.

We spoke over lunch at Bloomberg’s world headquarters in New York.

Hoelterhoff: That’s an eye-catching cover of the 6-foot-tall Washington on his handsome mount. It was interesting to read how much thought he put into ordering up the right kind of socks and vests from England.

Chernow: If he approached a town by carriage, he would get out of the coach and get up on a white horse -- he would always bring along one or two white parade horses -- because he knew that he looked terrific on a white horse.

During the Revolutionary War, he was so concerned with appearance that he decided to establish a personal guard, and wrote to his officers that the people in this guard should not be shorter than 5’8” or taller than 5’10.” A year later, he sent out a follow-up letter in which he says the guard should not be shorter than 5’9” or taller than 5’10” -- so he has actually narrowed it.

The Man

Hoelterhoff: Without Washington the war would not have been won, is that it?

Chernow: I don’t think so. Okay, Washington’s not perfect and he’s really rather middling as a battlefield leader.

But take him out of the picture, and then take any of the other characters in this book and put them in Washington’s place.

We don’t win. There’s not another figure of that strength of personality and character.

His political skills were extraordinary and he had the ability to hold the army together. The army was the closest we had to a nation in many ways, because otherwise there were just 13 squabbling states.

Hoelterhoff: Throughout a rather busy life, he writes poised letters, though one really stands out, given his complex feelings about slavery.

Come Visit

Chernow: At the very beginning of the Revolutionary War, he receives an ode in his honor from Phillis Wheatley, then the most famous black person -- she was still a slave and a published poet.

Washington sits down when he receives this ode, writes her a beautiful letter, which at one time he would only have written to a duchess. He invites her to come and visit him at headquarters, which apparently she did.

Hoelterhoff: The story of his life is also the story of his marriage.

Chernow: They made the most extraordinary sacrifices of their private life.

For me, arguably the saddest entry in all of Washington’s papers came in June of 1785. In December 1783, he finally goes back to Mount Vernon, having only returned once during the 8 1/2 years of the war.

So one-and-a-half years after he’s back in Mount Vernon, he records in his diary, “I dined alone with Mrs. Washington today for the first time since returning from the war.”

Hoelterhoff: Why?

Lots of Company

Chernow: Because at the end of the war, all of these veterans, tourists and curiosity seekers start descending on Mount Vernon. According to the hospitality at the time, you would feed people and put them up for the night.

So here’s George Washington, the most famous man in America, maybe in the world at that point, sitting at dinner every night with all these strangers at the table and he never gets to have a meal alone with his wife.

Hoelterhoff: She comes across as a real soul-mate, devoted and intelligent. Then there’s his mother, who pops up every 100 pages like comic relief.

In the middle of the French and Indian war, she wants him to send her butter. Later she absurdly claims that she’s indigent and petitions the Virginia legislature for assistance!

Chernow: We don’t have a single sentence of George Washington’s mother saying one complimentary thing about his being commander-in-chief or president.


Hoelterhoff: Washington was surrounded by smart men like Hamilton and Jefferson. How was he different? What made him special?

Chernow: He has wisdom and vision. He has unerring judgment. He has force of character, force of personality. He has fortitude. He has patience. He has will power. He has all of these virtues that they don’t have.

I think that in a revolution you need two types of people.

You need people who generate ideas, people who can create new doctrines and new institutions. And then you need a Washington, someone smart enough to grasp the ideas, to latch onto them and implement them.

I think any other human being would have completely collapsed under the weight of running the Continental Army for 8 1/2 years. It was an exercise in extreme frustration.

Hoelterhoff: It’s hard to imagine what he would think of today’s politicians and pollsters.

Chernow: His was a very partisan time. Hamilton, Adams, these people were brilliant at slashing each other. But they had a sense of integrity. Their views were coming directly out of their values and directly out of their experience.

I think that politics today with pollsters and focus groups would be so alien to them. I can’t even think of an 18th-century analogy to that.

The Feud

Hoelterhoff: Your last book focused on Hamilton. What made you want to spend five more years or so in that era?

Chernow: When I was writing the Hamilton biography, I was reading the letters that he wrote in the days after he had this feud with Washington over a silly matter.

Hamilton then writes a letter to his father-in-law in which he describes Washington as very moody, difficult and temperamental. And I can remember reading that letter and thinking: That’s what George Washington was like?

I was really stunned. I had never seen that description of him before.

And that got me curious to find out: Well, who is this man?

To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

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