Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
Thats two in a row - or almost in a row. After reading Chernow's 'Grant', wanted to follow it up with another one from him and ended up with 'Washington' and took me close to about a month and half to finish this one. I would have to say that I did not plod through - like I use to do with a lot of boring books. This one was interesting.
The interesting factor may be due to the fact that a lot of what I read was unknown to me and that always fascinates. While I've read a lot about the Revolutionary war and the presidency of Jefferson (thanks ,not in least, to Vidal's politically-charged 'Burr'), Washington, till this point remained that stony-face on the one dollar bill, serenely looking at you with absolutely no expressions, whatsoever.
So, it was interesting to read about the pre-revolutionary times - when he grew up in a family - visited regularly by untimely deaths of near and dears, which while unfortunate, inches him close to his destiny in a sure way, as Chernow keeps reminding while announcing every death.
While destiny may be an easy way out to explain how Washington ended up being the commander in chief of the Continental Army, the hard truth is that he is mostly a self-made man - who while trying to get free of an over-weening mother, makes a life for himself which makes sure that he is in the right places all the time, saying the right things and most importantly, doing the right things as well.
Unlike the other founding fathers of other countries I know of, Washington is not a overtly extrovert kind of person, who lead a revolution by rhetoric or through a spiritual influence or by sheer blood bath. He comes out unique, because of the way he conducts himself, there is no other way than to say, as a well-bred Southern Gentleman. That also does not account for that uniqueness as the other Virginians of the same time - Madison, Jefferson or others - are equally gentlemanly or more so than him. He comes out unique because he is a doer than a speaker or any of the other things. This is the most important aspect of his character which Chernow keeps emphasizing at every juncture of his life.
While I try to 'like' him while going through that monster of the book, he does not inspire a worship like Lincoln does or the charm which JFK brings. He does not want to be liked, I guess. He just silently wishes not to be disturbed and let him just do things. And the list of accomplishments , each a path-breaking precedent in its day, is long and that fact that he was chosen for each of these positions through acclamation creates a new kind of respect for him.
But what actually surprised me is the romantic in Washington. Of course, his marriage to Martha comes out more as a necessity than anything and they remain absolutely wonderful couple till the end. But his short lived love affair with Sally Fairfax has all the elements of that tragic love story that repeats through the ages and to think that he writes prose like this is absolutely fascinating to know.
"You have drawn me, my dear Madam, or rather I have drawn myself, into an honest confession of a Simple Fact. Misconstrue not my meaning, 'tis obvious; doubt it not or expose it. The world has no business to know the object of my love, declared in this manner to - you, when I want to conceal it. One thing above all things, in this World I wish to know, and only one person of your acquaintance can solve me that or guess my meaning - but adieu to this till happier times, if ever I shall see them. "
Of course, there are some grouses as well with the well-written book. For one, I don't think I wanted to know so much about Washington's teeth. I mean, at this point, I know more about his than I ever know about mine. I would've like to read more about the charged political environment of that initial days of the country and it was a dampener to slide over a lot of stuff that would've made some explosive prose. But then I may have to pick up the one on Hamilton for that, I guess.
Overall, a well written, absolute delightful book.
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