The Other Washington

January 1, 2015

BOOK REVIEW
I've been reading (to be honest, listening to a downloadable audio book from our wonderful library) about Washington. Not that swampy place by the Potomac, the real living, breathing one.

 

 The book is Ron Chernow's Pulitzer-winning biography Washington: A Life. Chernow has had the benefit of the years of editing of Washington's vast collected papers that has taken place since the great biographies of the past were written.

 

This new biography is certainly worth reading for that reason alone, but Chernow is also a fine writer, balanced in his views and with a gift for sorting through this enormous bulk of Washington's writings for the trenchant vignette. He also seems to have made himself thoroughly familiar with the many colorful people associated with Washington over his long career. Luckily, Washington had an eye on documenting his place in history, even demanding that handwritten copies of his correspondence be made in the field and shipped separately to guard against capture or loss.

 

Washington emerges as just the person the nation wanted and needed for the role he was destined to play: man of integrity, somewhat aloof and above the hurly-burly of politics, tall and full of the gravitas expected in a leader of men and head of state. Of course, certain factoids will remain burned into my failing memory, such as the smallpox scars on his nose and cheeks, his hippopotamus ivory teeth, stained brown by port, and his sending to London after his marriage for Spanish Fly. He didn't hesitate to shoot mutinying soldiers. And he was a captive of his cultural conditioning, as we all are, being mystified that his house slaves, on at least two occasions, fled to freedom. He seems to have lost control of Indians under his command during a border skirmish (some have called it an ambush) with French troops before the French and Indian War was declared. On this occasion a French officer was clubbed to death while trying to read a diplomatic proclamation regarding French territorial claims. He then downplayed the rather gory facts in his report of the affair. He was quite ambitious in his youth and anxious to move up and into the higher realms of the very class-conscious Virginia society where British landed grandees ruled. He indulged in some sharp practices in accumulating great acreage in the West using agents who concealed his identity as they negotiated. He was always conscious of how he was being perceived by the larger society around him, especially as he became a prominent actor on the political stage. He was quite concerned with money and making his farms profitable. This entailed meticulous supervision of every detail of management through his overseers, and constant personal observation of his slaves' performance. He was not an advocate of severe punishments, but felt that the slaves had to be constantly supervised to prevent malingering. He was an affectionate husband and generous paterfamilias for the large extended family that surrounded him in his later years, and generous to friends in need.

 

He seemed to have given his slaves the standard, rather meager allowance of clothing, but allowed them a good deal of freedom in the raising of food in their own plots and allowed them to travel to the town markets, unsupervised on occasion. There must have been an atmosphere of trust between him and his home farm slaves because there is recorded at least one occasion of slaves being given guns and allowed to hunt at Mt. Vernon. He was interested in the newest methods of farming and was a diligent reader of the scientific literature on that subject. He came to the conclusion that the crops that had demanded large numbers of slaves in order to be profitable were not the way of the future and experimented with new crops. In later years, when a good portion of his slaves were either aging or too young to do heavy work, he decided that he should free them all because he was very reluctant to sell slaves. That would break up families. However, ownership of a large proportion of them was in the hands of his wife and ultimately of her children by her earlier marriage. He did manumit his own slaves, but only upon his death. So, though he may be seen, from his expressions to others and his private writings, to want to free his slaves, this was impossible as he saw it.

 

Washington was always under great financial stress. This was due to a combination of the economics of slave agriculture and his need to present himself as expected within the planter class. He felt the need to entertain according to southern standards of hospitality at home and the standards of polite northern society when he went north. And he obviously enjoyed living well. The long lists of luxuries ordered from London make this clear. His speculation in western land never brought him much profit. He was not a shrewd and grasping person, despite his clear desire to make money and move ahead in society. A striking proof of this is his refusal to accept a salary as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. He continually expresses the desire, above all else, to prove his impeccable honesty and dedication to the revolutionary cause. This unshakable adherence to a code of high integrity was held throughout his career, though he saw all about him merchants making fortunes while his soldiers literally starved and went without boots and coats. The stories of bloody footprints along the line of march, and men falling by the wayside and freezing to death are not exaggerations, according to Chernow. The modern reader finds it difficult to understand why the lower ranks of the army continued to fight without pay or decent supplies for months on end while others when conscripted could pay for substitutes. His physical courage was astounding. He braved bullets in very exposed situations, while men fell all about him and horses were shot from under him on several occasions. He appeared to genuinely feel that his fate was in the hands of Providence, though he was not a particularly fervent churchgoer.

 

Washington had the looks and presence required of a charismatic leader, and at six feet, with his characteristic manner of standing straight as a ram-rod and stately walk, he impressed everyone when he entered a room, according to countless contemporary accounts. He was not easy to work for, demanding unceasing attention to detail by his subordinates and squads of clerks laboring over his tremendous correspondence when in office. But he also formed close and affectionate attachments to his immediate aides, typically very bright young men who could have been the sons that he and Martha never had. Notably, his attachment to Lafayette remained despite Lafayette's prominent role in the French Revolution to which Washington was strongly opposed. His demands could become unsupportable for a strong-willed subordinate, as Chernow relates in an incident in which Alexander Hamilton quits when upbraided for not hopping-to quite quickly enough. To his credit, the chief acknowledges his error and apologizes to Hamilton. But Hamilton gracefully declines to continue. He already had his eye on higher political position. Washington could swear a blue streak, but seemed to save such outbursts to confined quarters, or when in the field, to occasions when his men were dropping their guns and fleeing. He was very careful not to appear to be proud of his achievements.

 

Washington typically was rather reticent in brilliant company. He felt his lack of conversational adroitness, and believed his lack of a college education put him at a disadvantage among men of distinction. However, his wide reading and great curiosity regarding science and history is evident in his very extensive correspondence on all sorts of matters. It was noted that he could loosen up noticeably when suitably lubricated with port. He liked the women who attended his table and often charmed them greatly. He liked to dance, though Martha did not, and often would expend a good deal of the evening dancing with some of the ladies when the government was established in New York or Philadelphia. He seems never to have had an improper affair with any woman, though his correspondence shows he was clearly attracted platonically to the wife of a close friend and neighbor in his early days, and perhaps another woman in his later years.

 

I will leave the battle narratives for the reader to explore, but just say Washington seems by general consensus not to have been a brilliant tactician, slow to respond to quickly changing conditions in the field. But his great strength was in his unshakable determination to prevail over terrible circumstances, his developed skill in choosing his officers, the loyalty he inspired in his men, his very evident high integrity when this was in short supply among the politicians, and his sheer commanding presence when the nation desperately needed such a person. This last as much as anything may have swayed King Louis XVI to send the aid that tipped the balance of power in our favor, brought the defeat of Cornwallis, and convinced the British that the fight was not worth the cost.

 

~Jim Snell

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