I’ve embarked on a new adventure—well, strictly speaking, I embarked on this adventure about two years ago, and today I finally finished taking the first step. So basically, I’m writing about the slowest first step ever :) Anyway, could I be anymore (pointlessly) mysterious? It’s not even that big of a deal…just a little Grand Idea I thought of and am finally making progress in…
(If you can’t view YouTube, here’s the same video in vimeo.)
I was planning to give you a list of the five most memorable bits. But I had seven. So now I am giving you my seven most memorable bits. These quotes are not necessarily monumental or representative of the book as a whole; they are simply the seven things I most remembered and appreciated by the time I had finished reading.
- During troubled political (and national) times in 1786, Washington wrote James Madison a letter with this absolutely stunning sentence—possibly my favorite in the book:
“No morn ever dawned more favorable than ours did—and no day was ever more clouded than the present” (in Chernow, p. 515).
- Washington had dreams of grandeur and greatness—but not necessarily related to public life. Oddly enough, what he seems to have most wanted was to make Mount Vernon a modern, agricultural success. He was never able to do that, partly because of his constant money problems (seriously: the man was always broke), but mostly because he was never at home (in the war, Continental Congress, president, etc). I find a strange kind of poetry and nobility in that; it is as if he was unable to care for the home he dearly loved because was building the foundation for all of ours.
- Ron Chernow’s summation of George Washington at the end of the book:
Never a perfect man, he always had a normal quota of human frailty, including a craving for money, status, and fame. Ambitious and self-promoting in his formative years, he had remained a tight-fisted, sharp-elbowed businessman and a hard-driving slave master. But over the years, this man of deep emotions and strong opinions had learned to subordinate his personal dreams and aspirations to the service of a larger cause, evolving into a statesman with a prodigious mastery of political skills and an unwavering sense of America’s future greatness. (Chernow, p. 812)
- On the importance of Washington’s service during the war (and also Ben Franklin’s awesome quote at the end):
[Washington's] fortitude in keeping the impoverished Continental Army intact was a major historic accomplishment. It always stood on the brink of dissolution, and Washington was the one figure who kept it together, the spiritual and managerial genius of the whole enterprise…Seldom in history has a general been handicapped by such constantly crippling conditions. There was scarcely a time during the war when Washington didn’t grapple with a crisis that threatened to disband the army and abort the Revolution. The extraordinary, wearisome, nerve-wracking frustration he put up with for nearly nine years is hard to express…Few people with any choice in the matter would have persisted in this impossible, self-sacrificing situation for so long…His stewardship of the army had been a masterly exercise in nation-building. In defining the culture of the Continental Army, he had helped to mold the very character of the country…In the end, he had managed to foil the best professional generals that a chastened Great Britain could throw at him. As Benjamin Franklin told an English friend after the war, “An American planter was chosen by us to command our troops and continued during the whole war. This man sent home to you, one after another, five of your best generals, baffled, their heads bare of laurels, disgraced even in the opinion of their employers.” (Chernow, p. 458)
- Jefferson and Washington were very close for a while, but a lot of drama came in (Founding Fathers = Drama Mamas), and they ended their lives without really being reconciled. Chernow notes that in later years, after Washington had died, Jefferson reflected on him much differently:
“On the whole, his character was, in its mass, perfect, in nothing bad, in few points indifferent; and it may truly be said, that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great” (in Chernow, p. 766).
- I was fascinated by the amount of negative press Washington received when he was in his presidency. Initially, he had only wanted to serve as president for two years—just long enough to get the country on its feet. But those two years turned into four, and all his advisers begged him to stay on for a second term. Everyone–and it seems like everyone—feared that removing Washington from office would be a blow too heavy for the infant nation. At the same time, these same advisers were secretly writing negative criticism against Washington. There are pamphlets, newsletters, articles in the newspapers—I mean it’s incredible. I always thought Washington was sort of above criticism. And in a sense he was—the electoral college unanimously elected him to the presidency. But still, once in office, he had heavy and harsh opposition. And it came from some of the men who were his closest advisers and friends: Madison, Jefferson, Adams, etc. (They all wrote anonymously.) Seriously, American politics has doesn’t just have a long history of contentious, polemical politics…it’s like the only political history we have. Secret groups, mud-slinging, fear-mongering—all those hallmarks of today’s political scene—well, we learned from the best, it seems. (Washington himself was, and worked hard to stay, above all that. But everyone else: drama.) In a Wall Street Journal interview, Chernow said:
“Every president should read presidential biographies. Because they will learn every single president in American history thought that he was the most maligned person who had ever held the office, suffered the most vitriolic press attacks, and had to deal with the most ferocious partisanship of any [era]…No matter how good a president you are, you’re going to leave office feeling less loved.”
(As a side-note: I was particularly puzzled by the duplicity shown by Madison and Jefferson. They advise Washington and they basically press-gang him into serving a second term…yet they also persistently critique him, undermine him, and question him. What’s that about? Part of me wonders if they were so persistent in assailing Washington as a way of ensuring that the presidency would never be above critique. I mean, they clearly disagree with him in many fundamental ways—it’s actually amazing to see how little the Founders actually did agree on—but I wonder if they were trying to also make sure, from the get-go, that no president, not even one unanimously elected, would be above reproach. Anyone know any US historians I can query about this?)
- Finally, if not most memorably:
Perhaps nothing better illustrated Washington’s pioneering farm work than his development of the American mule, a hardy animal representing a cross between a male donkey (also called a jack) and a female horse…Before Washington championed these creatures, they had hardly any existence in the country…In addition to his better-known title of Father of His Country, Washington is also revered in certain circles as the Father of the American Mule” (pp. 483-484).
I think it’s safe to say that it was at this point that Washington had really arrived.