History Book Reviews

Washington: a life by ron chernow.

  • Author: Ron Chernow
  • Published: 2011

I recently visited Mount Vernon, George Washington's prized estate and residence in Northern Virginia. It was beautiful, elegant in its simplicity and cunning in its attempts to appear richer than it really was. The mansion still stands exactly as George left it; the outbuildings with his stables, overseer's quarters, slaves' cabins, meat drying hut, blacksmith hut, all preserved as he would have known them. The majestic view of the Potomac from his luxurious piazza remains nearly unchanged, and even his bedroom where he died in 1799 is untouched, forever holding the ghost of the man who is perhaps one of the most famous American historical figures of all time. But for all his fame, George Washington has been mythologized so thoroughly that we hardly see his humanity, his flaws and passions; we only see his god-like reign in the American Revolution and as first President of the United States, his inability to tell a lie, his horrific dental problems and still more horrific dentures, and something to do with a cherry tree. But in reading Ron Chernow's masterful biography, I was thrilled to discover that the real George Washington, with all his rage, insecurity, sarcasm, inappropriate romantic crushes, and profound internal conflicts, is far more fascinating than the legend.

Chernow accomplishes something in this book that is incredibly admirable to me, something difficult to achieve, yet of unmeasurable importance for any great history. After remarking that "George Washington has receded so much in our collective memory that he has become an impossibly stiff and inflexible figure, composed of too much marble to be quite human" (a stunningly written sentence!), Chernow goes on to excavate the flesh and blood man from this marble prison and introduce the reader to the real Washington in wonderful detail. The depth of his research is remarkable---the amount of primary sources he references is amazing, and the quality of his writing is beyond compare. Chernow offers constant modern psychological analyses of George the man, honest and sympathetic, yet does it so subtly that it never breaks the beautiful narrative of the past. His writing is majestic and masterful, but so accessible for even the amateur historian. I loved every single page of it, which is all the more impressive because the book had enough pages to equal the weight of a small child.

This book goes into so much detail about Washington's life that it is impossible to summarize. Let it suffice to say that Chernow delves into George's heritage and young life, his role as General during the American Revolution, his two terms as President of the United States, and his all-too brief stint as a common farmer before his death. But this is not some dry, factual history. Chernow goes out of his way to show the incredible passion behind George Washington that we usually never see: the tempestuous temper; the sappy romanticism and chivalrous love; the constant anxiety over being perceived as less important than he felt; and his "forbidden rage." It is stellar, wonderful, utterly humanizing and utterly human.

So many things I learned from this exquisite biography were my favorite. I never knew that the young George was six feet tall with reddish brown hair and hands so gigantic he had to wear custom-made gloves. He also obsessed over his clothing, though his "...somewhat oddly shaped body made him the bane of his tailors." Apparently he had a lot of junk in the trunk. Washington also had crazy mother issues, seemingly through no fault of his own (she sometimes misspelled his name in letters). Sometimes his background and feelings around his mom sounded suspiciously similar to that of a serial killer. Not that I'm implying anything.

George had malaria, smallpox, and dysentery within a handful of years. His diary was once seized by the French and published in Paris to a jeering public, to his eternal mortification. He was terrified at the thought of public speaking, because of his primitive dentures. His false teeth sometimes sprung violently out of his mouth as he was speaking. George was an expert at the "...subtle art of seeking power by refraining from too obvious a show of ambition." In other words, he played hard to get and clamored to get power by pretending he didn't want it, a scheme that works just as well today. George was not a prudish man. Apparently J.P. Morgan (1837-1913) owned some letters written by Washington, and destroyed them in the 1920's, claiming they were too "smutty." J.P. Morgan is now my enemy.

George's human quirks are too delightful to be ignored. He prided himself on how far he could throw stones. He loved hunting, and once killed five bald eagles in one day (that's really embarrassing for him now). He was a devoted step-father and step-grandfather, having no children of his own. He cried a lot, according to contemporary sources. He endured bitter backstabbing from his most trusted aides and friends in the government. He kept his own pulled teeth and tried to make them into dentures. He truly believed in the abolishment of slavery but could never figure out how to achieve it in his day. Upon his death, his will dictated that all his slaves would be freed when Martha died, but when George was gone she became convinced they were trying to murder her to gain their freedom, so she freed them early. Washington was known for his innovative ideas about agriculture and farming, to the point where he was known as both the Father of our Country and the Father of the American Mule.

Chernow presents a Washington that is both vain yet humble, ambitious yet eager for a private life, desirous of immortal fame yet desperate to retire to his farming; yet he was the only President to date to be elected unanimously. This was a truly human man, who cheekily named his dog 'Cornwallis', after the defeated British General; he snuck out of towns early to avoid fanfare; and truly despised public life toward the end, wanting only to be back on Mt. Vernon managing his farm.

In Chernow's biography, George Washington is finally portrayed as a real man, a flesh and blood person with flaws, political incorrectness, and humor. He is often hilarious, often admirable, often worthy of mocking, and often worthy of warm affection in this wonderful book. Chernow's skill finally lets the real George Washington break free of his marble prison and saturate the modern world with his utterly human and relatable personality. I feel so lucky that I got to see George Washington's home and belongings in my recent trip, although I will have nightmares for the rest of my life after seeing the real set of his horrifying dentures.

About The Author

Ron chernow.

Ron Chernow is an American journalist, historian and biographer. He received degrees from both Yale and Cambridge, as well as honorary degrees from five other universities. Chernow's work focuses primarily on the history of business and finance, as well as extensive biographies of... Read more...


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Dusting Off an Elusive President’s Dull Image

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By Janet Maslin

  • Sept. 27, 2010

When George Washington was sworn in as the first president of the United States, he had only one original tooth left. It was “a lonely lower left bicuspid,” according to Ron Chernow’s vast and tenaciously researched new biography. But Mr. Chernow was not content merely to write about the tooth and its larger implications, which range from questions about Washington’s apparent reticence in later life (did his dental troubles keep him from speaking?) to his harshly pragmatic attitude toward slavery (he purchased slaves’ teeth, perhaps for use in dentures). Mr. Chernow also paid a personal visit to the tooth at the medical library where it is stored.

His thoroughness in “Washington: A Life” is prompted by the Papers of George Washington, a research project that has been under way at the University of Virginia since 1968, has passed the 60-volume mark and is nowhere near complete. Mr. Chernow argues that this project has unearthed enough new material to warrant “a large-scale, one-volume, cradle-to-grave narrative” about Washington, despite the excellent work of biographers including Joseph J. Ellis and James T. Flexner and the reading public’s impression that the story of Washington’s life is already well known.

The sheer volume of new research easily validates Mr. Chernow’s effort. But “Washington” also has a simpler raison d’être. It means to dust off Washington’s image, penetrate the opacity that can most generously be called “sphinxlike” and replace readers’ “frosty respect” for Washington with “visceral appreciation.” In other words, Mr. Chernow, who made a similar effort to inject excitement into the Alexander Hamilton story, has taken on an even greater challenge this time.

“Something essential about Washington has been lost to posterity, making him seem a worthy but plodding man who somehow stumbled into greatness,” Mr. Chernow writes at the start. And Washington truly “ranks as the most famously elusive figure in American history, a remote, enigmatic personage more revered than truly loved.”

george washington biography ron chernow

But it soon becomes clear in “Washington” that there are legitimate reasons for why Washington’s popularity (at least among biography readers) has been eclipsed by showy and protean figures like John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Those founding fathers liked to make their ideas and opinions widely known; Washington once claimed indignantly that his face never betrayed his feelings.

Washington seldom had simple reasons for taking action, and whatever his motives, he rarely liked to tip his hand. He was not well educated. He was not a philosopher. And “in a century of sterling wits, George Washington never stood out for his humor,” Mr. Chernow writes, “but he had a bawdy streak and relished hearty, masculine jokes.”

He was also known as a harsh taskmaster, a regalia-loving clotheshorse, a fanatic for fastidious details (he chose the living creatures that surrounded him, whether soldiers or white horses, by exact physical specifications), a literal slave driver and a chilly commander. Mr. Chernow tells the possibly apocryphal story of how Hamilton conned his fellow founding father Gouverneur Morris into glad-handing Washington with “a friendly slap on the shoulder” and lived to regret it. Washington famously did not like to be touched.

But that was the old Washington. The new one that emerges from Mr. Chernow’s account is more human and accessible. And although “Washington” never takes an overly psychoanalytical tack, it does find one big reason for its subject’s lifelong aloofness and hauteur: his mother, Mary Ball Washington.

“With more to brag about than any other mother in American history, she took no evident pride in her son’s accomplishments,” Mr. Chernow writes. “His Excellency! What nonsense!” she once exclaimed about her famous son.

“Washington” has an enormous span, even if some of its content is familiar from other overlapping biographies. (Mr. Chernow often falls back on his earlier insights into the Hamilton-Jefferson infighting that colored Washington’s presidency.) But it captures the ambitious, proud and sharp-elbowed prodigy that Washington was in his early 20s, when his renown during the French and Indian War catapulted him into military leadership.

And in a book that pays meticulous attention to the decisions made by Washington during wartime, with a step-by-step march through the eight years of Revolutionary War battles, Mr. Chernow arrives at a carefully considered assessment of his subject’s capabilities. He sees the successes and failures of Washington’s military decisions. But he places much higher value on the great man’s political instincts and shows how they rarely failed him. And he argues that Washington’s ability to hold his soldiers together and set a proud, stoical example mattered more than any individual battle could.

At 900-odd densely packed pages, “Washington” can be arid at times. But it’s also deeply rewarding as a whole, and it does genuinely amplify and recast our perceptions of Washington’s importance. When his presidency begins, “Washington” becomes a mini- “Team of Rivals,” complete with stellar cast and monumentally important issues to be faced. This new portrait offers a fresh sense of what a groundbreaking role Washington played, not only in physically embodying his new nation’s leadership but also in interpreting how its newly articulated constitutional principles would be applied. A more ostentatiously regal leader could never have accomplished as much as this seemingly reluctant hero achieved.

“Washington” also devotes great attention to the harsh criticism that Washington faced as soon as the luster faded and the governing began. As president, missing his beloved Mount Vernon and incurring great financial losses to serve as head of state, he was carped about so relentlessly that even his way of tapping a fork at the dinner table could become fodder for malicious gossip.

Mr. Chernow describes both the pettiness of these complaints and the gravity of other, more important ones, most crucially Washington’s behavior as a slave owner. The book doggedly follows the changeable, inconsistent, sometimes flagrantly dishonest Washington through a morass of contradictory gestures, and Mr. Chernow works hard to parse this material with a judicious eye.

The best he can do, and the best Washington allows, is this revealing passage: “With a politician’s instinct, Washington spoke to different people in different voices. When addressing other Virginia planters, he spoke in the cold, hard voice of practicality, whereas when dealing with Revolutionary comrades, he blossomed into an altruist.”

How fully can these contradictions be fathomed? The father of our country remains a moving target for historians, no matter how many of his letters and papers come to light.

By Ron Chernow

Illustrated. 904 pages. The Penguin Press. $40.

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From the author of Alexander Hamilton , the New York Times bestselling biography that inspired the musical, comes a gripping portrait of the first president of the United States.


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The george washington you didn't know.

You know that George Washington was America's first president and a battle winning general in the Revolutionary War. But aside from the cherry tree, what other myths persist about the legendary figure? Host Liane Hansen talks with biographer Ron Chernow about his take on the founding father in his new book, Washington: A Life .

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The faith of—and our faith in—george washington.

No historical subject is more debated in the popular media today than the role of faith in the American founding.  These debates often focus on the faith of the founding fathers:  Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Madison, and especially George Washington.  In Ron Chernow’s extraordinary new biography of Washington, we see that while Washington remained remarkably silent about his own faith, he cultivated an aura of providential favor about his own person and the founding of the American nation.  Becoming the father of a new nation—in addition to surviving a war despite having a number of horses shot out from under you, your clothes riddled with bullet holes, and narrowly escaping cannonball blasts—turns one’s thoughts, I suppose, to the providence of God.

For his own part, Washington’s Anglican faith was moderate and utterly reserved.  That is how we should account for Washington’s irregular church attendance and his failure to take communion, Chernow explains.  He never liked to make a public show of his own faith.  This is also the reason why Chernow doubts that Washington was ever seen praying as depicted by Paul Weber in the popular painting George Washington in Prayer at Valley Forge .  “The reason to doubt the story’s veracity is not Washington’s lack of faith,” Chernow writes, “but the typically private nature of his devotions.”  Chernow’s portrayal of Washington’s near-secretive faith seems quite plausible, although it would still not account for Washington’s strange decision hardly ever to utter or write the name of Jesus Christ in his thousands of surviving letters and public statements. If Washington’s personal faith remains enigmatic, his public employment of religious rhetoric was constant and heartfelt.  As the war’s tide turned toward the Americans, despite all the bungling and hardships of the Continental Army, the general became more convinced that God had chosen him as the man to lead America, Moses-like, out of British captivity.  Some might see Washington’s providentialist rhetoric as manipulative, but in Chernow’s biography it seems genuine.  The exhausted Washington, presenting his military resignation before Congress at the end of the war, brought the chamber to tears as the insisted that only “a confidence in the rectitude of our cause, the support of the supreme power of the union, and the patronage of heaven” sustained him and the army through the hellish war.  His voice breaking with emotion, he commended “our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God.”

Washington was no perfect man, either publicly or privately. Most historians understand that General Washington made a number of major errors in judgment as the war proceeded.  And privately, his foibles were exposed nowhere better than his foolish but flagrant flirtations with the married woman Sally Fairfax, prior to Washington’s own marriage.  Chernow judiciously focuses on this dalliance to remind us that however wise and courageous Washington became in adulthood, he began as a young man who could really do some bone-headed things.

By the end of the Revolution Washington had already begun to take on the cast of a man under a special blessing.  With stunning persistence and sheer luck (or divine favor?), Washington had led the Continental Army to victory over the fearsome British.  Henry Laurens, on behalf of Congress, wrote that Americans should thank God for “the preservation of Your Excellency’s person, necessarily exposed for the salvation of America” during the war’s most awful battles.  As the retiring general passed through Philadelphia, one admirer gushed that he had seen “the greatest man who has ever appeared on the surface of the earth.”  (It is not clear whether this fan deliberately meant to set Washington above Jesus.)

With Washington’s death in 1799, the hosannas grew louder.  One admirer wrote (in a phrase that gave my latest book its title) that in the dark days of 1776, when it appeared that all might be lost, the “God of Liberty” declared “I have found a patriot worthy to rule a nation of freemen. A flood of glory burst from heaven, and encircled Washington.  At the boldness of his achievements the ministers of Britain stood appalled, their monarch trembled upon his throne, and despotism himself, blinded by the blaze of his fame, threw down his chains.”  The popular print, the Apotheosis of Washington , showed him ascending to heaven above Mount Vernon.  Europeans noticed that Americans put up likenesses of Washington in their homes.  “Just as we have images of God’s saints,” one wrote.

Many Americans still exalt Washington (along with Abraham Lincoln) to an almost-sacred level, and in Chernow’s biography we learn that Washington helped to make himself a civil saint.  Washington publicly marveled at the fact that he not die sometime during the Seven Years’ War or the American Revolution, and that he survived to become the president of the improbable new nation.  In the mentality typical of that divinely-suffused age, he could not but help see the hand of God at work in his life, and in the nation’s.

Even contemporary critics thought Americans might adore their leader too much, with one asserting that “the people of America have been guilty of idolatry in making a man their God.”  But surely we can admire the man without bending the knee to worship.  Achieving that balance may be the greatest success of Chernow’s biography.

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The best biography of George Washington yet

Ron chernow's extraordinary new book paints the first president as a man in a struggle to contain his emotions, by max byrd.

Two unforgettable images run through Ron Chernow's great book, "Washington: A Life," and they have nothing to do with cherry trees or wooden teeth or silver dollars thrown across the Potomac.

The first is the image of a gallows. It appears early in the narrative, when Colonel George Washington of the Virginia Militia, seeking to terrify his untutored, undisciplined, ragamuffin soldiers into obedience, builds a 40-foot-high gibbet. Soon after, he sentences 14 of his men to death for desertion and insubordination. Though he will eventually spare 12 from the noose, he will still punish them with absolutely fierce and shocking floggings, an average of 600 lashes per prisoner. "Washington made a point of hanging people in public," Ron Chernow writes, "to deter others." It is an expression of "his blazing temper." It is also a result of his experience as explorer and soldier in the Virginia wilderness, "which darkened his view of human nature." His lifelong practice will be to see "people as motivated more by force than kindness." When he hangs his first man, the year is 1756, Virginia is still a British colony, and Washington is 24 years old.

Gallows and nooses were, of course, an ordinary part of Washington's time and world. To hang a disobedient solider -- or rebel -- was commonplace in 18th century warfare. The British government routinely punished treason this way, with the additional flourish of disemboweling the offender while he was still alive, and then decapitating him. When Benjamin Franklin cautions the Continental Congress that "we must all hang together, or we will all hang separately," only the first part of his famous sentence is metaphorical.

Washington became a rebel and a revolutionary well aware that, in the event of defeat, just as Franklin said, he would be hanged, drawn and quartered by the king's justice. As the culprit in chief, he could expect no mercy. The revolutionaries all fought, he later said, "with halters around our necks." But his recurrence to the imagery of hanging -- and to the real thing -- reminds us not only of his courage and realism, but also of the remarkable, even perpetual fury he usually buried or concealed behind a calm, stony façade. When he had reached the limit of his patience with war profiteers at Valley Forge, Washington erupted in a violent rage that would not have surprised any of his subordinates -- "I would to God," he burst out to the president of Congress, "that one of the most atrocious of each state was hung in gibbets upon a gallows five times as high as the one prepared for Haman."

These gallows and halters show us something else as well: the discipline, the iron will that sets Washington apart from almost all of his contemporaries. In the Benedict Arnold affair, when the captured British spy John Andre, a handsome and sympathetic figure, pleaded to be executed like a gentleman by a firing squad, Washington turned his back. Despite the wrenching protests of Hamilton and Lafayette, he ordered Andre hanged in full view of the army, as an example to his own soldiers and a message to the British. "Policy," he explained to the French admiral Rochambeau, "required a sacrifice."

The second recurring image is much less stern and inflexible. It is the image of Washington taking his place, sitting or standing, before a portrait painter, an act that he performed literally hundreds of times in his life. Chernow begins his book with such a moment -- Washington in 1793, the newly elected first president of the United States, seated before the disheveled, chattering, snuff-taking artist Gilbert Stuart. The supremely self-disciplined Washington would not care for such a man. Almost at once, Chernow notes, he retreated behind his stolid mask. But Stuart was a painter of genius. He saw the immense force of personality that lay behind Washington's discipline. "The mouth might be compressed," Chernow says, "the parchment skin drawn tight over ungainly dentures, but Washington's eyes still blazed from his craggy face. In the enduring image that Stuart captured and that ended up on the one-dollar bill -- a magnificent image of Washington's moral stature and sublime, visionary nature -- he also recorded something hard and suspicious in the wary eyes with their penetrating gaze and hooded lids."

Stuart knew that he had seen -- and painted -- a man of explosive, tumultuous character. Afterward, he would tell a friend that Washington's features "were indicative of the strongest and most ungovernable passions." Such was the force of his personality, Stuart declared, that had Washington been born in the forests, he "would have been the fiercest man among the savage tribes."

In a brilliant use of scholarly material, Chernow -- the author of a number of other distinguished biographies, including "The House of Morgan" , which won the National Book Award, and "Alexander Hamilton" -- pauses again and again in his narrative to describe such portraits of Washington, from youth to old age. It is, if you write as clearly and sensitively as Chernow, a wonderful way of giving the reader a concrete sense of the arc of Washington's life and the changes in his appearance over the years. And it is a vivid way of stressing the charismatic effect of his physical presence, lost to us now except as we glimpse it in faded splashes of color within the frame of a painting, though every contemporary testifies to its existence. "It is hard to exaggerate his impact on others," Garry Wills has written. "Some animal vitality, conveyed we don't know how, baked off him."

These recurring portraits also allow Chernow to return, logically and gracefully, to his central theme: "Washington's lifelong struggle to control his emotions." He has in mind more than simply Washington's well-documented temper, or its opposite, his notorious and unnerving gift of silence when pressed or offended. For Chernow, Washington was always on guard as well against his "softer emotions." He was a rugged soldier who could weep in public, a sentimentalist who never forgot his earliest, perhaps illicit romance with Sally Fairfax. "This man of deep feelings," Chernow writes, "was sensitive to the delicate nuances of relationships and prone to tears as well as temper. He learned how to exploit his bottled-up emotions to exert his will and inspire and motivate people ... His contemporaries admired him not because he was a plaster saint or an empty uniform but because they sensed his unseen power."

Chernow follows this theme through more than 800 fascinating pages. He touches repeatedly and masterfully on topics well-known to scholars -- Washington's cold and difficult relationship with his mother ("the lifelong whetstone of his anger"); his anxious, avaricious attitude toward money; his luck as a general; his obsession with his clothing and his flair for theatrical self-presentation. But in such a full-scale, cradle-to-grave biography, these familiar topics gain energy from context and repetition. For Chernow, Washington's personality is not a mystery to be solved, but a complex, hot-blooded expression of character to be traced over a long life, to be seen and understood from every possible angle.

What will a reader learn here that is new? Perhaps little in the factual way, though Chernow's account of Washington's evolving and tortured "moral confusion over slavery" is fresh and important. From the vantage point of Mount Vernon, some readers may find Jefferson and Madison diminished figures. Others may be shocked by the venomous partisanship, conspiracy theories and "lethal political atmosphere" of Washington's last years, far too reminiscent of our own cankered time. (It is hard to believe that Washington's rabid critics could seriously accuse him of being a British double-agent during the Revolution.)

But Chernow's narrative is so rich, its scale so massive and epic, that what is new fits seamlessly into the wider picture. The final impression a reader will take away -- his or her lasting image of Washington -- will be profound and dynamic. Chernow has gone into Washington's world, almost into his mind, and inhabited it. Under his gaze, from the very first page, that world begins to speak and stir, and great Washington steps before us, as if on an enormous stage, distant but clear, breathing. If I have not said so already, this is far and away the best life of George Washington ever written.

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Is the Age of the Resistance Historian Coming to an End?

People who study the past don’t always have special insight into politics. recent events have made that crystal clear..

As a writer on the American past , I have no argument to make regarding whether Joe Biden should step down as president and/or as the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. Since everybody else already has that question fully sorted out, with bulletproof if-then scenarios, strategies and tactics, and projections for results, I’m free to focus on other matters.

Related matters, though. I’ve been writing for years in opposition to professional historians pressing—on the public, on the media, on politicians and judges—a sense of the hyperurgent political relevance of certain facts and narratives drawn from the historians’ own scholarship. The phenomenon was already smoldering in certain historians’ adoration of Hamilton: An American Musical (with origins in their having  given Ron Chernow’s flawed Hamilton biography a total pass ), but it really blew up  in 2017 #Resistance culture . Throughout the Trump presidency, this dynamic fed on itself, and on the riveted attention of an understandably anxious liberal public, until it became a cultural force. A group of history professors gained big follower numbers on Twitter, acted as political commentators on MSNBC and CNN, started NPR podcasts and popular newsletters, and were even awarded rare one-on-one interviews with President Biden himself.

After taking a victory lap at  the advent of the Biden administration in 2021, the group is now addressing the 2024 election, applying their sense of the American past to assessments of likely outcomes of possible electoral tactics in response to the crisis emerging from Biden’s poor debate performance at the end of June. Yet in a political and intellectual climate so different from the one in which they birthed their project, they seem to find themselves flailing. That situation makes me hope we’re at the beginning of a shift in public-facing engagement by historians, an end to oversimplifying the country’s history in the service of proposing immediate answers to our most dire political challenges.

Last week, in the wake of the Biden-Trump debate, the historian-as-self-appointed-indispensable-public-adviser-on-current-politics collapsed into a pile of pretty evident absurdity. The collapse could have happened on the watch of any one of the historians who have made the bit their stock-in-trade—Princeton’s Kevin Kruse, Yale’s Timothy Snyder, Princeton’s Sean Wilentz (an innovator in the space, back in the Clinton years), and a number of others—but instead it happened to possibly the leading light of the whole effort, Heather Cox Richardson, professor of history at Boston College and the author of the enormously popular Substack newsletter Letters From an American , launched during the Trump administration, which made Richardson a star of the historians’ warning-and-advising effort I’m talking about.

I’ve mounted some criticism of Richardson’s approach to both  history  and  politics . Younger professional historians, too, have for the past couple of years put forth acid online critiques of the group of colleagues in which she so notably figures, which is made up of tenured stars with jobs at private universities. Some early-career professors take a dim view of an approach to facing the public that brings a few stars popular acclaim, even as the profession continues its decades-long jobs crisis . (On X this week, University of Massachusetts historian Asheesh Kapur Siddique, a longtime critic of this approach to public commentary, posted : “America desperately needs historians … as researchers and educators. It doesn’t need historians who’ve deluded themselves into thinking that giving academic dress to MSNBC talking points is saving democracy. Fight for public education instead.”) Divisions within the profession regarding Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza and this spring’s campus protests have exacerbated the internal backlash.

But a recent public statement from Richardson seems to be triggering even wider skepticism. The statement was made during an interview this past weekend with Christiane Amanpour, the CNN host. Amanpour set up the conversation by announcing that “historians like Heather Cox Richardson,” unlike those who want to replace Biden, “say the country’s focus should be firmly on the threat posed by a second Trump term.” In response to Amanpour’s first question, Richardson then said:

My interest is not in Biden or Kamala Harris or Trump or whomever he might choose as vice president. My interest is less in that than in the long-term sweep of American history. I want the whole picture. And in the whole picture of American history, if you change the presidential nominee at this point in the game, the candidate loses … for a number of reasons. First of all, because the apparatus of the party for the election is set up around somebody else. Second of all, because the news is only going to report all the growing pains of a brand-new campaign, including all the opposition research that the opponents are then going to throw at people.

The historian’s prediction, therefore, based on a claim about what she calls “the long-term sweep of American history,” is that replacing Biden is a sure loser for the party. In that scenario, she says, Trump must win.

Before considering whether any of that makes political sense and, more important to me, has anything to do with whatever lessons may be drawn from the history of presidential campaigns, it’s worth noting that much of the negative reaction to Richardson’s statement has to be coming from people who simply want Biden replaced. These are people who are not, as I am, criticizing an entire approach to centering U.S. history in politics, but instead are refusing to take advice from the historian in this particular case: a difference of tactical opinion regarding the best way forward.

And yet even that divergence from what’s been nearly wholesale adoption, in liberal culture circles, of Richardson’s historical narratives and analyses may tell us something about how things have changed, in those circles, since the middle of the Trump administration. While the historians invited to the White House during Biden’s honeymoon period (they included Richardson) seemed to speak as one in their excited, even fulsome support of him and his presidency, and while Biden has seemed to enjoy their support in return—in the debate, he stumblingly cited a poll of presidential historians that pronounced Trump the ”worst president ever,” and he continues to rely on Jon Meacham as a speechwriter and adviser—it’s naturally gotten harder and harder, as time goes on, to cleave to a unified narrative about what history can tell us about politics. Trump, the force that drew historians into this dynamic cultural position in the first place, in that they’ve framed him as a historically unique threat to the United States, has been out of office. The person in office has been taking actions that raise a multitude of questions, as all normal presidencies are bound to do.

Some will agree and some disagree with Richardson’s political advice. And it’s true, of course, that a new candidate can always lose. But what she’s presenting as history is simply bizarre, and the public disservice caused by her urgency in presenting it has gotten extreme.

If you were watching the CNN interview and didn’t know much about past presidential elections, you’d have no choice but to believe, given Richardson’s reputation and presentation, that throughout American history, there’s a repeating pattern known to scholarship and leading to an ironclad law of elections stating that if a new presidential nominee comes in at this point in the process, that nominee will lose. Richardson even gives reasons.

There’s no such pattern. Changing nominees at this point has literally never happened before—not even once. Richardson’s assertion that “in the whole picture of American history, if you change the presidential nominee at this point in the game, the candidate loses”—so clear, so forceful, so authoritative—is totally invented.

And this is a historian whose scholarship on the Reconstruction period is truly important.

That’s what I mean by bizarre.

There are only two past analogies to the current situation that some might try, in vain, to draw. One is President Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection in 1968: The nominee, Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s vice president, lost the election to Richard Nixon. The other is President Harry Truman’s decision not to seek reelection in 1952: Adlai Stevenson, governor of Illinois, lost to Dwight Eisenhower.

Neither of those Democratic nominees entered the race at anything like the point where we are now. The ’52 and ’68 stories are quite nuanced, and they differ in fascinating ways—the kind of thing some historians still like to explore—but in both cases, the incumbent dropped out in March, with important primaries still to come. Anyway, systems for assigning delegate votes to nominees were starkly different from the current system. No analysis of ’52 or ’68 suggests that Humphrey’s and Stevenson’s losses resulted from late entry, or from an infrastructure set up around the incumbent, or from the effects of opposition research. And the incumbents had withdrawn for their own political reasons—not in a state of crisis caused by a widespread belief that they’d become mentally unfit for office.

In the long-range sweep of our history, two examples, only four elections apart, wouldn’t make for a decisive historical pattern, if such patterns existed. But those two examples aren’t even close to analogous to our current situation.

While we’re coming up with patterns, consider the flipside. An incumbent’s declining to seek another term has not always led to failure for his party’s nominee. George Washington decided not to serve a third term; his vice president, John Adams, won the presidency. U.S. Grant was hoping for a third term; as Richardson knows better than most, when Grant decided against running, his party’s nominee, Rutherford B. Hayes, prevailed in one of the nastiest elections in our history.

Or, on the flip-flipside, you can say that, in stark distinction to the irrelevant examples of ’52 and ’68, replacing Biden after the primaries poses an even  greater  likelihood of loss than Humphrey’s or Stevenson’s. You can say anything you want: Everyone who studies the past seriously, and that certainly includes Richardson, knows there’s no way to legitimately deploy history to arrive at anything like the flat, ironclad, if-then prediction she made on CNN, especially in the ever-changing crucible that is U.S. electoral politics, even if you had recourse to a series of real past events, and she didn’t.

So what’s going on here?

Many will be quick to ascribe motive. I’m not interested in that. What’s clear is that Richardson is invoking an elevated appeal to “the whole picture,” and adducing a faux-historical rule, in order to persuade people, many of whom trust her status as a scholar and are unlikely to question her facts, that Biden should stay on the ticket. A leading exponent of the liberal cultural ethos that perpetually bemoans our “post-truth” world has gotten herself into a position where an immediate partisan political tactic, possibly undertaken in a state of desperation, induces her to invent historical fact. The claim Richardson has made on CNN may be the most blatant example of a tendency that I think was always inherent in the new mode of engaging the public that historians began pursuing in 2017—in part because that mode defined itself in relation to Trump’s presidency.

One becomes one’s enemy. It’s an ironclad rule of history.

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Washington: A Life (Pulitzer Prize Winner)

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Ron Chernow

Washington: A Life (Pulitzer Prize Winner) Kindle Edition

From the author of  Alexander Hamilton , the New York Times bestselling biography that inspired the musical, comes a  gripping portrait of the first president of the United States. Winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Biography “Truly magnificent . . . [a] well-researched, well-written and absolutely definitive biography”  —Andrew Roberts,  The Wall Street Journal “Until recently, I’d never believed that there could be such a thing as a truly gripping biography of George Washington . . . Well, I was wrong. I can’t recommend it highly enough—as history, as epic, and, not least, as entertainment.”  —Hendrik Hertzberg,  The New Yorker Celebrated biographer Ron Chernow provides a richly nuanced portrait of the father of our nation and the first president of the United States. With a breadth and depth matched by no other one volume biography of George Washington, this crisply paced narrative carries the reader through his adventurous early years, his heroic exploits with the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, his presiding over the Constitutional Convention, and his magnificent performance as America's first president. In this groundbreaking work, based on massive research, Chernow shatters forever the stereotype of George Washington as a stolid, unemotional figure and brings to vivid life a dashing, passionate man of fiery opinions and many moods. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash Broadway musical  Hamilton  has sparked new interest in the Revolutionary War and the Founding Fathers. In addition to Alexander Hamilton, the production also features George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Aaron Burr, Lafayette, and many more.

  • Print length 930 pages
  • Language English
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  • Publisher Penguin Books
  • Publication date October 5, 2010
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com review.

--Washington was the only major founder who lacked a college education. John Adams went to Harvard, James Madison to Princeton, and Alexander Hamilton to Columbia, making Washington self-conscious about what he called his “defective education.”

--Washington never had wooden teeth. He wore dentures that were made of either walrus or elephant ivory and were fitted with real human teeth. Over time, as the ivory got cracked and stained, it resembled the grain of wood. Washington may have purchased some of his teeth from his own slaves.

--Washington had a strangely cool and distant relationship with his mother. During the Revolutionary War and her son’s presidency, she never uttered a word of praise about him and she may even have been a Tory. No evidence exists that she ever visited George and Martha Washington at Mount Vernon. Late in the Revolutionary War, Mary Washington petitioned the Virginia legislature for financial relief, pleading poverty—and, by implication, neglect by her son. Washington, who had been extremely generous to his mother, was justly indignant.

--Even as a young man, Washington seemed to possess a magical immunity to bullets. In one early encounter in the French and Indian War, he absorbed four bullets in his coat and hat and had two horses shot from under him yet emerged unscathed. This led one Indian chief to predict that some higher power was guiding him to great events in the future.

--By age 30 Washington had survived smallpox, malaria, dysentery, and other diseases. Although he came from a family of short-lived men, he had an iron constitution and weathered many illnesses that would have killed a less robust man. He lived to the age of 67.

--While the Washingtons were childless—it has always been thought that George Washington was sterile—they presided over a household teeming with children. Martha had two children from her previous marriage and she and George later brought up two grandchildren as well, not to mention countless nieces and nephews.

--That Washington was childless proved a great boon to his career. Because he had no heirs, Americans didn’t worry that he might be tempted to establish a hereditary monarchy. And many religious Americans believed that God had deliberately deprived Washington of children so that he might serve as Father of His Country.

--Though he tried hard to be fair and took excellent medical care of his slaves, Washington could be a severe master. His diaries reveal that during one of the worst cold snaps on record in Virginia—when Washington himself found it too cold to ride outside—he had his field slaves out draining swamps and performing other arduous tasks.

--For all her anxiety about being constantly in a battle zone, Martha Washington spent a full half of the Revolutionary War with her husband—a major act of courage that has largely gone unnoticed.

--Washington was obsessed with his personal appearance, which extended to his personal guard during the war. Despite wartime austerity and a constant shortage of soldiers, he demanded that all members of his personal guard be between 5'8" and 5'10"; a year later, he narrowed the range to 5'9" to 5'10."

--While Washington lost more battles than he won, he still ranks as a great general. His greatness lay less in his battlefield brilliance—he committed some major strategic blunders—than in his ability to hold his ragged army intact for more than eight years, keeping the flame of revolution alive.

--Washington ran his own spy network during the war and was often the only one privy to the full scope of secret operations against the British. He anticipated many techniques of modern espionage, including the use of misinformation and double agents.

--Washington tended his place in history with extreme care. Even amid wartime stringency, he got Congress to appropriate special funds for a full-time team of secretaries who spent two years copying his wartime papers into beautiful ledgers.

--For thirty years, Washington maintained an extraordinary relationship with his slave and personal manservant William Lee, who accompanied him throughout the Revolutionary War and later worked in the presidential mansion. Lee was freed upon Washington’s death and given a special lifetime annuity.

--The battle of Yorktown proved the climactic battle of the revolution and the capstone of Washington’s military career, but he initially opposed this Franco-American operation against the British—a fact he later found hard to admit.

--Self-conscious about his dental problems, Washington maintained an air of extreme secrecy when corresponding with his dentist and never used such incriminating words as ‘teeth’ or ‘dentures.’ By the time he became president, Washington had only a single tooth left—a lonely lower left bicuspid that held his dentures in place.

--Washington always displayed extremely ambivalence about his fame. Very often, when he was traveling, he would rise early to sneak out of a town or enter it before he could be escorted by local dignitaries. He felt beleaguered by the social demands of his own renown.

--At Mount Vernon, Washington functioned as his own architect—and an extremely original one at that. All of the major features that we associate with the house—the wide piazza and colonnade overlooking the Potomac, the steeple and the weathervane with the dove of peace—were personally designed by Washington himself.

--A master showman with a brilliant sense of political stagecraft, Washington would disembark from his coach when he was about to enter a town then mount a white parade horse for maximum effect. It is not coincidental that there are so many fine equestrian statues of him.

--Land-rich and cash-poor, Washington had to borrow money to attend his own inauguration in New York City in 1789. He then had to borrow money again when he moved back to Virginia after two terms as president. His public life took a terrible toll on his finances.

--Martha Washington was never happy as First Lady—a term not yet in use—and wrote with regret after just six months of the experience: “I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else...And as I cannot do as I like, I am obstinate and stay home a great deal.”

--When the temporary capital moved to Philadelphia in 1790, Washington brought six or seven slaves to the new presidential mansion. Under a Pennsylvania abolitionist law, slaves who stayed continuously in the state for six months were automatically free. To prevent this, Washington, secretly coached by his Attorney General, rotated his slaves in and out of the state without telling them the real reason for his actions.

--Washington nearly died twice during his first term in office, the first time from a tumor on his thigh that may have been from anthrax or an infection, the second time from pneumonia. Many associates blamed his sedentary life as president for the sudden decline in his formerly robust health and he began to exercise daily.

--Tired of the demands of public life, Washington never expected to serve even one term as president, much less two. He originally planned to serve for only a year or two, establish the legitimacy of the new government, then resign as president. Because of one crisis after another, however, he felt a hostage to the office and ended up serving two full terms. For all his success as president, Washington frequently felt trapped in the office.

--Exempt from attacks at the start of his presidency, Washington was viciously attacked in the press by his second term. His opponents accused him of everything from being an inept general to wanting to establish a monarchy. At one point, he said that not a single day had gone by that he hadn’t regretted staying on as president.

--Washington has the distinction of being the only president ever to lead an army in battle as commander-in-chief. During the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, he personally journeyed to western Pennsylvania to take command of a large army raised to put down the protest against the excise tax on distilled spirits.

--Two of the favorite slaves of George and Martha Washington—Martha’s personal servant, Ona Judge and their chef Hercules—escaped to freedom at the end of Washington’s presidency. Washington employed the resources of the federal government to try to entrap Ona Judge in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and return her forcibly to Virginia. His efforts failed.

--Washington stands out as the only founder who freed his slaves, at least the 124 who were under his personal control. (He couldn’t free the so-called ‘dower slaves’ who came with his marriage to Martha.) In his will, he stipulated that the action was to take effect only after Martha died so that she could still enjoy the income from those slaves.

--After her husband died, Martha grew terrified at the prospect that the 124 slaves scheduled to be freed after her death might try to speed up the timetable by killing her. Unnerved by the situation, she decided to free those slaves ahead of schedule only a year after her husband died.

--Like her husband, Martha Washington ended up with a deep dislike of Thomas Jefferson, whom she called “one of the most detestable of mankind.” When Jefferson visited her at Mount Vernon before he became president, Martha said that it was the second worst day of her life—the first being the day her husband died.

(Photo of Ron Chernow © Nina Subin)

From Publishers Weekly

From booklist, about the author, excerpt. © reprinted by permission. all rights reserved..

Prelude The Portrait Artist

In March 1793 Gilbert Stuart crossed the North Atlantic for the express purpose of painting President George Washington, the supreme prize of the age for any ambitious portrait artist. Though born in Rhode Island and reared in Newport, Stuart had escaped to the cosmopolitan charms of London during the war and spent eighteen years producing portraits of British and Irish grandees. Overly fond of liquor, prodigal in his spending habits, and with a giant brood of children to support, Stuart had landed in the Marshalsea Prison in Dublin, most likely for debt, just as Washington was being sworn in as first president of the United States in 1789.

For the impulsive, unreliable Stuart, who left a trail of incomplete paintings and irate clients in his wake, George Washington emerged as the savior who would rescue him from insistent creditors. "When I can net a sum sufficient to take me to America, I shall be off to my native soil," he confided eagerly to a friend. "There I expect to make a fortune by Washington alone. I calculate upon making a plurality of his portraits… and if I should be fortunate, I will repay my English and Irish creditors." In a self-portrait daubed years earlier, Stuart presented himself as a restless soul, with tousled reddish-brown hair, keen blue eyes, a strongly marked nose, and a pugnacious chin. This harried, disheveled man was scarcely the sort to appeal to the immaculately formal George Washington.

Once installed in New York, Stuart mapped out a path to Washington with the thoroughness of a military campaign. He stalked Washington's trusted friend Chief Justice John Jay and rendered a brilliant portrait of him, seated in the full majesty of his judicial robes. Shortly afterward Stuart had in hand the treasured letter of introduction from Jay to President Washington that would unlock the doors of the executive residence in Philadelphia, then the temporary capital.

As a portraitist, the garrulous Stuart had perfected a technique to penetrate his subjects' defenses. He would disarm them with a steady stream of personal anecdotes and irreverent wit, hoping that this glib patter would coax them into self-revelation. In the taciturn George Washington, a man of granite self-control and a stranger to spontaneity, Gilbert Stuart met his match. From boyhood, Washington had struggled to master and conceal his deep emotions. When the wife of the British ambassador later told him that his face showed pleasure at his forthcoming departure from the presidency, Washington grew indignant: "You are wrong. My countenance never yet betrayed my feelings!" He tried to govern his tongue as much as his face: "With me it has always been a maxim rather to let my designs appear from my works than by my expressions."

When Washington swept into his first session with Stuart, the artist was awestruck by the tall, commanding president. Predictably, the more Stuart tried to pry open his secretive personality, the tighter the president clamped it shut. Stuart's opening gambit backfired. "Now, sir," Stuart instructed his sitter, "you must let me forget that you are General Washington and that I am Stuart, the painter." To which Washington retorted drily that Mr. Stuart need not forget "who he is or who General Washington is."

A master at sizing people up, Washington must have cringed at Stuart's facile bonhomie, not to mention his drinking, snuff taking, and ceaseless chatter. With Washington, trust had to be earned slowly, and he balked at instant familiarity with people. Instead of opening up with Stuart, he retreated behind his stolid mask. The scourge of artists, Washington knew how to turn himself into an impenetrable monument long before an obelisk arose in his honor in the nation's capital.

As Washington sought to maintain his defenses, Stuart made the brilliant decision to capture the subtle interplay between his outward calm and his intense hidden emotions, a tension that defined the man. He spied the extraordinary force of personality lurking behind an extremely restrained facade. The mouth might be compressed, the parchment skin drawn tight over ungainly dentures, but Washington's eyes still blazed from his craggy face. In the enduring image that Stuart captured and that ended up on the one-dollar bill—a magnificent statement of Washington's moral stature and sublime, visionary nature—he also recorded something hard and suspicious in the wary eyes with their penetrating gaze and hooded lids.

With the swift insight of artistic genius, Stuart grew convinced that Washington was not the placid and composed figure he presented to the world. In the words of a mutual acquaintance, Stuart had insisted that "there are features in [Washington's] face totally different from what he ever observed in that of any other human being; the sockets of the eyes, for instance, are larger than he ever met with before, and the upper part of the nose broader. All his features, [Stuart] observed, were indicative of the strongest and most ungovernable passions, and had he been born in the forests, it was his opinion that [Washington] would have been the fiercest man among the savage tribes." The acquaintance confirmed that Washington's intimates thought him "by nature a man of fierce and irritable disposition, but that, like Socrates, his judgment and great self-command have always made him appear a man of a different cast in the eyes of the world."

Although many contemporaries were fooled by Washington's aura of cool command, those who knew him best shared Stuart's view of a sensitive, complex figure, full of pent-up passion. "His temper was naturally high-toned [that is, high-strung], but reflection and resolution had obtained a firm and habitual ascendency over it," wrote Thomas Jefferson. "If ever, however, it broke its bonds, he was most tremendous in wrath." John Adams concurred. "He had great self-command… but to preserve so much equanimity as he did required a great capacity. Whenever he lost his temper, as he did sometimes, either love or fear in those about him induced them to conceal his weakness from the world." Gouverneur Morris agreed that Washington had "the tumultuous passions which accompany greatness and frequently tarnish its luster. With them was his first contest, and his first victory was over himself… Yet those who have seen him strongly moved will bear witness that his wrath was terrible. They have seen, boiling in his bosom, passion almost too mighty for man."

So adept was Washington at masking these turbulent emotions behind his fabled reserve that he ranks as the most famously elusive figure in American history, a remote, enigmatic personage more revered than truly loved. He seems to lack the folksy appeal of an Abraham Lincoln, the robust vigor of a Teddy Roosevelt, or the charming finesse of a Franklin Roosevelt. In fact, George Washington has receded so much in our collective memory that he has become an impossibly stiff and inflexible figure, composed of too much marble to be quite human. How this seemingly dull, phlegmatic man, in a stupendous act of nation building, presided over the victorious Continental Army and forged the office of the presidency is a mystery to most Americans. Something essential about Washington has been lost to posterity, making him seem a worthy but plodding man who somehow stumbled into greatness.

From a laudable desire to venerate Washington, we have sanded down the rough edges of his personality and made him difficult to grasp. He joined in this conspiracy to make himself unknowable. Where other founders gloried in their displays of intellect, Washington's strategy was the opposite: the less people knew about him, the more he thought he could accomplish. Opacity was his means of enhancing his power and influencing events. Where Franklin, Hamilton, or Adams always sparkled in print or in person, the laconic Washington had no need to flaunt his virtues or fill conversational silences. Instead, he wanted the public to know him as a public man, concerned with the public weal and transcending egotistical needs.

Washington's lifelong struggle to control his emotions speaks to the issue of how he exercised leadership as a politician, a soldier, a planter, and even a slaveholder. People felt the inner force of his nature, even if they didn't exactly hear it or see it; they sensed his moods without being told. In studying his life, one is struck not only by his colossal temper but by his softer emotions: this man of deep feelings was sensitive to the delicate nuances of relationships and prone to tears as well as temper. He learned how to exploit his bottled-up emotions to exert his will and inspire and motivate people. If he aroused universal admiration, it was often accompanied by a touch of fear and anxiety. His contemporaries admired him not because he was a plaster saint or an empty uniform but because they sensed his unseen power. As the Washington scholar W. W. Abbot noted, "An important element in Washington's leadership both as a military commander and as President was his dignified, even forbidding, demeanor, his aloofness, the distance he consciously set and maintained between himself and nearly all the rest of the world."9

The goal of the present biography is to create a fresh portrait of Washington that will make him real, credible, and charismatic in the same way that he was perceived by his contemporaries. By gleaning anecdotes and quotes from myriad sources, especially from hundreds of eyewitness accounts, I have tried to make him vivid and immediate, rather than the lifeless waxwork he has become for many Americans, and thereby elucidate the secrets of his uncanny ability to lead a nation. His unerring judgment, sterling character, rectitude, steadfast patriotism, unflagging sense of duty, and civic-mindedness—these exemplary virtues were achieved only by his ability to subdue the underlying volatility of his nature and direct his entire psychological makeup to the single-minded achievement of a noble cause.

A man capable of constant self-improvement, Washington grew in stature throughout his life. This growth went on subtly, at times imperceptibly, beneath the surface, making Washington the most interior of the founders. His real passions and often fiery opinions were typically confined to private letters rather than public utterances. During the Revolution and his presidency, the public Washington needed to be upbeat and inspirational, whereas the private man was often gloomy, scathing, hot-blooded, and pessimistic.

For this reason, the new edition of the papers of George Washington, started in 1968 and one of the great ongoing scholarly labors of our time, has provided an extraordinary window into his mind. The indefatigable team of scholars at the University of Virginia has laid a banquet table for Washington biographers and made somewhat outmoded the monumental Washington biographies of the mid-twentieth century: the seven volumes published by Douglas Southall Freeman (1948 – 57) and the four volumes by James T. Flexner (1965 – 72). This book is based on a close reading of the sixty volumes of letters and diaries published so far in the new edition, supplemented by seventeen volumes from the older edition to cover the historical gaps. Never before have we had access to so much material about so many aspects of Washington's public and private lives.

In recent decades, many fine short biographies of Washington have appeared as well as perceptive studies of particular events, themes, or periods in his life. My intention is to produce a large-scale, one-volume, cradle-to-grave narrative that will be both dramatic and authoritative, encompassing the explosion of research in recent decades that has enriched our understanding of Washington as never before. The upshot, I hope, will be that readers, instead of having a frosty respect for Washington, will experience a visceral appreciation of this foremost American who scaled the highest peak of political greatness.

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Product details.

  • ASIN ‏ : ‎ B003ZK58SQ
  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Penguin Books (October 5, 2010)
  • Publication date ‏ : ‎ October 5, 2010
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • File size ‏ : ‎ 9770 KB
  • Text-to-Speech ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • Screen Reader ‏ : ‎ Supported
  • Enhanced typesetting ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • X-Ray ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • Word Wise ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • Sticky notes ‏ : ‎ On Kindle Scribe
  • Print length ‏ : ‎ 930 pages
  • #12 in US Revolution & Founding History (Kindle Store)
  • #18 in Biographies of US Presidents
  • #31 in American Revolution Biographies (Books)

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About the author

Ron chernow.

Ron Chernow won the National Book Award in 1990 for his first book, The House of Morgan, and his second book, The Warburgs, won the Eccles Prize as the Best Business Book of 1993. His biography of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., Titan, was a national bestseller and a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist.

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Customers find the plot moving, fascinating, and gripping. They also describe the biography as incredible, interesting, and the definitive one-volume biography of Washington's life. Readers appreciate the literate style and the depth of detail. They find the content illuminating and fresh. Opinions are mixed on the length and entertainment value, with some finding it very long and worthwhile while others say it's fairly lengthy.

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Customers find the book's content enjoyable, exhaustive, and in-depth. They also say it provides a nice mix of historical fact and analysis, told in a reasonable tone. Readers describe the man Washington as riveting, venerated, honest, and humble. They find the absence of battle diagrams acceptable.

"...and extremely readable, laced with well placed anecdotes and excellent analysis ...." Read more

"...Remarkably, Chernow makes Washington come alive without sacrificing details ...." Read more

"...Washington is described by different people in the following terms, venerated , truly noble and majestic, vast ease, dignity, always buffed and..." Read more

"...I’m listening to it as I follow along in the book. A great way for me to comprehend , while moving quickly through a large book. See ya soon." Read more

Customers find the book literate, descriptive, and engaging. They also say the style is accessible to contemporary readers. Readers also appreciate the clear pronunciation and moderate pacing. They say the book provides a substantial feast of historical prose that leaves them with vivid memories.

"...More on that later. Fortunately, Chernow's writing is very relaxed and extremely readable, laced with well placed anecdotes and excellent analysis...." Read more

"... Chernow is a wonderful writer . As with his other biographies, Chernow gives us a picture that goes beyond a stiff formal portrait...." Read more

"...day forward, we will now have a definitive, reliable, and wonderfully readable story of the life of our most important American...." Read more

"...He has the rare knack for summarizing without oversimplifying . This book is truly a remarkable work of research and synthesis...." Read more

Customers find the biography incredible, interesting, and valuable. They also enjoy the nuances of Washington's being, most notably the behind-the-scenes interpretation. Readers say it provides a thorough view of the revolutionary times and helps them understand the complex man.

"...It's very interesting and informative, and long, very long. 817 pages...." Read more

"...This is a complete biography of George Washington . It is divided into six parts, covering his entire life...." Read more

"...This biography is full of surprises and really allows the reader to view Washington in a different light...." Read more

"...to write long books that are very readable, and yet surround you with many historical antidotes , character studies, and yet the length scares you..." Read more

Customers find the character traits of the author courageous, honest, and patriotic. They also say he was selfless, disciplined, and dedicated. Readers say the book shows an example of personal ideological and emotional struggle while maintaining a compelling sympathy.

"... All of it is very important and I would not want any of the subjects deleted. But I think most could have been abbreviated...." Read more

"...mistakes (and Chermow points out a lot of them) and was above all; courageous , conscientious, honest, and hard working...." Read more

"...racing on horseback to spur on his men, most enterprising, and dangerous as a warrior . Arnold had horses shot out from under him, and kept going...." Read more

"...and blood, imbued with human characteristics, suffused with moral strengths and human weaknesses — reflected in such sobering issues as his..." Read more

Customers find the plot moving, incredible, and easy to follow. They also appreciate the in-depth dive into the nation's first president. Readers also mention the book is action-packed, fascinating, dynamic, and gripping.

"While a long book I got through it fairly quickly because it was so gripping . I didn't want to put it down...." Read more

"...The biggest surprise was that he was a political genius , well aware of his reputation and posterity...." Read more

"...of deep appreciation for grandly-dressed young women, and uncanny political agility ...." Read more

"...It's hard reading.I took one star off for some seeming lapses in the narrative , most notably as the revolution is winding down but prior..." Read more

Customers find the pacing of the book fast and smooth. They also say it's readable and well packaged.

"...a powerful performance, giving the reading weight while still keeping a brisk pace , a necessity given the length of the book...." Read more

"...During his successful presidency, exports had soared, shipping had boomed , and state taxes had declined dramatically...." Read more

"...wealth of information provided by his private papers into a surprisingly fast-paced , unbiased biography that never shies away from discussing the..." Read more

"...The biography is thorough, detailed, and yet very readable, flowing very smoothly ...." Read more

Customers are mixed about the length of the book. Some mention it's very long, while others say it'd be better to read a shorter book.

"...It's very interesting and informative, and long , very long. 817 pages...." Read more

"...Although the length might seem daunting , you'll come away with a whole new appreciation for America's most beloved founding father." Read more

"...and was above all; courageous, conscientious, honest, and hard working ...." Read more

"... They are long , but thankfully they all are engrossing page-turners and are easy to read.I thought all three books are excellent...." Read more

Customers are mixed about the entertainment value of the book. Some mention that the style is engaging and holds their interest throughout, while others say that it's boring, dry, and lacks readability. They also mention that parts of the painstaking detail drag on.

"...It reads like a novel and holds your interest . I learned a great deal about Washington, but more importantly about American history...." Read more

"...I am afraid there is very little of any value in this biography of George Washington that has not been said before and promptly and apparently..." Read more

"...His writing style is engaging and holds one's interest throughout ...." Read more

"...reader, this book is too detailed, too dense, and yes, folks, it is actually boring ...." Read more

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george washington biography ron chernow


  1. First Edition George Washington : A Life by Ron Chernow Biography

    george washington biography ron chernow

  2. Another work details George Washington's feats

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  3. Washington by Ron Chernow

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  4. Washington: A Life eBook : Chernow, Ron: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store

    george washington biography ron chernow

  5. Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

    george washington biography ron chernow

  6. Book Review

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  1. Welcoming the 19th President of the George Washington University

  2. Ron Chernow discusses "Grant" at 2018 National Book Festival

  3. Washington in 22 Minutes

  4. George Washington #1

  5. George Washington Biography #biography #history #viral #trending #shortvideo #biographica #free🇵🇸🇵🇸

  6. George Washington: America's First President in 60 Seconds. #shorts #youtubeshorts


  1. Washington: A Life (Pulitzer Prize Winner)

    Ron Chernow is the prizewinning author of six previous books and the recipient of the 2015 National Humanities Medal. His first book, The House of Morgan, won the National Book Award, Washington: A Life won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography, and Alexander Hamilton— the inspiration for the Broadway musical—won the George Washington Book Prize.

  2. Washington: A Life

    Washington: A Life is a biography of George Washington, the first president of the United States, written by American historian and biographer Ron Chernow and published in 2010. The book is a "one-volume, cradle-to-grave narrative" that attempts to provide a fresh portrait of Washington as "real, credible, and charismatic in the same way he was perceived by his contemporaries".

  3. Washington: A Life (Pulitzer Prize Winner)

    Chernow also discusses Washington's difficult relationship with his mother, a subject generally not covered in other one-volume biographies. The book also discusses such diverse topics as Washington's teeth, his height, and many of his illnesses. This is a complete biography of George Washington. It is divided into six parts, covering his ...

  4. Washington : a life : Chernow, Ron : Free Download, Borrow, and

    English. xxi, 904 p., [16] p. of plates : 25 cm. In "Washington : a Life" celebrated biographer Ron Chernow provides a richly nuanced portrait of the father of our nation, dashing forever the stereotype of a stolid, unemotional man, and revealing an astute and surprising portrait of a canny political genius who knew how to inspire people.

  5. Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

    2,811 reviews 1,443 followers. May 2, 2013. From Pulitzer-prize winner Ron Chernow, a landmark biography of George Washington: "In Washington: A Life" celebrated biographer Ron Chernow provides a richly nuanced portrait of the father of our nation. With a breadth and depth matched by no other one-volume life of Washington, this crisply ...

  6. Washington : A Life , by Ron Chernow (The Penguin Press)

    In Washington: A Life celebrated biographer Ron Chernow provides a richly nuanced portrait of the father of our nation. With a breadth and depth matched by no other one-volume life of Washington, this crisply paced narrative carries the reader through his troubled boyhood, his precocious feats in the French and Indian War, his creation of Mount Vernon, his heroic exploits with the Continental ...

  7. History Book Reviews

    But in reading Ron Chernow's masterful biography, I was thrilled to discover that the real George Washington, with all his rage, insecurity, sarcasm, inappropriate romantic crushes, and profound internal conflicts, is far more fascinating than the legend. ... In Chernow's biography, George Washington is finally portrayed as a real man, a flesh ...

  8. Ron Chernow

    Ronald Chernow (/ ˈ tʃ ɜːr n aʊ /; born March 3, 1949) is an American writer, journalist, and biographer. He has written bestselling historical non-fiction biographies. Chernow won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Biography and the 2011 American History Book Prize for his 2010 book Washington: A Life.He is also the recipient of the National Book Award for Nonfiction for his 1990 book The House ...

  9. Washington by Ron Chernow: 9780143119968

    In this unique biography, Ron Chernow takes us on a page-turning journey through all the formative events of America's founding. With a dramatic sweep worthy of its giant subject, Washington is a magisterial work from one of our most elegant storytellers. Ron Chernow's new biography, Grant, will be published by Penguin Press in October 2017.

  10. Amazon.com: Washington: A Life: 8601410329082: Chernow, Ron: Books

    Washington: A Life. Hardcover - Deckle Edge, October 5, 2010. by Ron Chernow (Author) 4.7 7,942 ratings. See all formats and editions. From National Book Award winner Ron Chernow, a landmark biography of George Washington. In Washington: A Life celebrated biographer Ron Chernow provides a richly nuanced portrait of the father of our nation.

  11. In 'Washington: A Life,' Ron Chernow Adds Dimension

    When George Washington was sworn in as the first president of the United States, he had only one original tooth left. It was "a lonely lower left bicuspid," according to Ron Chernow's vast ...

  12. Chernow biography reframes Washington in 'A Life'

    Chernow biography reframes Washington in 'A Life'. 0:04. 1:05. Had Ron Chernow not chosen to write biographies, he would have made a spectacular shrink. The man has a bone-deep understanding of ...

  13. Washington: A Life (Pulitzer Prize Winner)

    Ron Chernow is the prizewinning author of six previous books and the recipient of the 2015 National Humanities Medal.His first book, The House of Morgan, won the National Book Award, Washington: A Life won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography, and Alexander Hamilton—the inspiration for the Broadway musical—won the George Washington Book Prize.

  14. Washington: A Life (Pulitzer Prize Winner)

    Ron Chernow is the prize-winning author of six books and the recipient of the 2015 National Humanities Medal. His first book, The House of Morgan, won the National Book Award, Washington: A Life won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Biography, and Alexander Hamilton was the inspiration for the Broadway musical.His new biography, Grant, will be published in October 2017.

  15. Washington : a life : Chernow, Ron : Free Download, Borrow, and

    Washington : a life by Chernow, Ron. Publication date 2011 Topics Washington, George, 1732-1799, Presidents -- United States -- Biography, Generals -- United States -- Biography, United States -- History -- 1783-1815 Publisher New York : Penguin Books Collection internetarchivebooks; printdisabled

  16. Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

    In this groundbreaking work, based on massive research, Chernow shatters forever the stereotype of George Washington as a stolid, unemotional figure and brings to vivid life a dashing, passionate man of fiery opinions and many moods. Lin-Manuel Miranda's smash Broadway musical Hamilton has sparked new interest in the Revolutionary War and the ...

  17. The George Washington You Didn't Know : NPR

    HANSEN: Ron Chernow's new biography is called "Washington: A Life." It's published by Penguin Press. And Ron Chernow joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you. Mr. CHERNOW: A great pleasure ...

  18. Washington: A Life. Ron Chernow

    "The best, most comprehensive, and most balanced single-volume biography of Washington ever written." -Gordon S. Wood, "The New York Review of Books" Celebrated biographer Ron Chernow provides a richly nuanced portrait of the father of our nation. With a breadth and depth matched by no other onevolume life of George Washington, this crisply paced narrative carries the reader through his ...

  19. Ron Chernow: Writing a George Washington Biography

    This video segment is part of an interview with Mr. Ron Chernow, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of biographies on Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, an...

  20. The Faith of—and Our Faith in—George Washington

    In Ron Chernow's extraordinary new biography of Washington, we see that while Washington remained remarkably silent about his own faith, he cultivated an aura of providential favor about his own ...

  21. The best biography of George Washington yet

    Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. Two unforgettable images run through Ron Chernow's great book, "Washington: A Life," and they have nothing to do with cherry trees or wooden teeth or silver ...

  22. Should Biden drop out? Why historians like Heather Cox Richardson can't

    The phenomenon was already smoldering in certain historians' adoration of Hamilton: An American Musical (with origins in their having given Ron Chernow's flawed Hamilton biography a total pass ...

  23. Amazon.com: Washington: A Life (Audible Audio Edition): Ron Chernow

    Pulitzer Prize, Biography/Autobiography, 2011. From National Book Award winner Ron Chernow, a landmark biography of George Washington. In Washington: A Life celebrated biographer Ron Chernow provides a richly nuanced portrait of the father of our nation. With a breadth and depth matched by no other one-volume life of Washington, this crisply paced narrative carries the listener through his ...

  24. Amazon.com: Washington: A Life (Pulitzer Prize Winner) eBook : Chernow

    Ron Chernow Shares Surprising Facts About George Washington--Washington was the only major founder who lacked a college education. John Adams went to Harvard, James Madison to Princeton, and Alexander Hamilton to Columbia, making Washington self-conscious about what he called his "defective education." --Washington never had wooden teeth.