Hello History Buffs! For my next trick I will attempt to summarize an 800 page biography in 600 words. Here are my takeaways from Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow.
The oddity about George Washington’s rise to prominence was the peculiar way stepping stones fell in his path. The young Washington seemed always to be losing a relative to an untimely death. Each time, it left him with more money and a greater position in society. If it had been a less trustworthy person, I’d have grown suspicious. In his case, I concluded Washington was the hub of a circle of people who were significantly wealthier and unhealthier than he was – until they all died and he got their stuff. Then, they were just that much more unhealthier.
Washington made hay with the power he inherited, but all the stuff didn’t do him much good. Southern planters, for all their apparent wealth, were chronically in debt. Washington, with all his land holdings, inheritances, and whatnot, was not immune to this condition. He could have been the poster boy for it.
Washington’s habits kept him in debt. He had a taste for nice things. He was forever ordering crockery emblazoned with the family crest. He needed a new uniform for every camping trip and dressed all his attendants alike, as if they were bridesmaids. He kept up the décor like the Mother of His Country.
Washington was often unavailable to manage his own finances. Sacrificing his time to go fight the French, the British, and almost the French again, he had little time to spend maximizing his personal profits. Between running an eight-year revolution and serving as a two-term president, Washington was forced to leave his personal estate to managers less interested in his bank balance than he was.
George Washington could tell a lie. Washington lied in the way normal folks lie. He fibbed to protect his reputation. When a man of sound judgment makes a poor choice, he may feel pressure to fudge on the circumstances, as Washington did in his early military career. Washington also told white lies to smooth over differences with colleagues and to avoid moral dilemmas, like being a slave owner who wished he could be an abolitionist, if he could do so without inconveniencing himself.
The best thing about Washington’s lies are the ones he wouldn’t tell. He wasn’t tempted by the big, political lie. He didn’t spread lies about political foes, although he was the victim of many smears. He left it to his successors to bring official dishonesty to the presidency, which they lost no time in doing. Washington seemed more interested in setting a high bar for the presidency than in getting what he wanted at any cost.
Washington was an ambitious self-promoter. In a country full of ambitious self-promoters it was fortunate the one who rose to the top at the crucial moment was a rare man who, having gained power and fame, was content not to corner the market on it.
George Washington didn’t have the most brilliant mind of his time. He had something more important; he had wisdom. He knew where to turn when he needed help from one sort of genius or another, and he carefully considered something geniuses often overlook: tomorrow.
George Washington wasn’t a perfect man, but he was the perfect man for a particular time and place in history. It is hard to imagine many men who could have made a success out of the losing proposition that was the American Revolution. What other man, standing at the precipice of unlimited power, would have used it so benignly and handed it off so willingly?