Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

This is an excellent book on the life of George Washington. Washington is such a powerful figure in our society that it is hard to write on him. For many he is a semi-divine figure. That is true of his admirers and his critics. The admirers try to place him on a pedestal like a god. His critics seek to tear him off of a pedestal with all the rabid zeal of iconoclasts. Chernow gives us a picture of a human George Washington. He is very free with his praise, but doesn’t hesitate to point out his flaws as well.
The “Great Man” theory of history has fallen out of favor these days. It is impossible to look at the American Revolution and the Early Republic period without considering George Washington. A lesser man might have failed and the Revolution would have ended with a British victory and the death of the leaders of the Revolutionary generation. A lesser man might have prevailed on the field of battle, but succumbed to the lure of power and the American Republic would have become a dictatorship or a New World Monarchy. Washington was a greater man than that.
He did have his failings. He could be vain and had an explosive temper. He tried to temper those personal flaws. He rarely lost his temper in public and always tried to stifle his vanity. His occasional lapses do not make him a failure, rather they make him all the more human.
Chernow is a good writer. His books are designed for a general readership so it is not weighted down with the unnecessary baggage of academic writing. There are times where it seems that he re-emphasizes points that he has made quite clear. For example: we are told many times about Washington’s financial troubles. He goes into detail in many different places as if he is trying to convince the reader that this is true. It seemed a bit redundant at times, but that is only a small niggling point.
Overall this is an excellent book and I highly recommend it.
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