Ron Chernow's "Washington," reviewed by T.J. Stiles

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Sunday, October 24, 2010

WASHINGTON

A Life

By Ron Chernow

Penguin Press. 904 pp. $40

George Washington did not have wooden teeth. He had human teeth, which he bought from slaves, who pulled them from their own mouths. Washington had them fashioned into dentures, anchored with gold wire to his last native tooth. The apparatus distorted his features. Any pressure pained him -- a bite of food, even public speaking. Humiliated, he tried to keep his affliction secret. On top of his increasing deafness, it made him seem aloof.

Ron Chernow describes this dental hell in "Washington," and rarely have missing bicuspids been used to such effect. Here we see the strengths of this biography: the interweaving of the inner and outer man; a sensitivity to the impact of a seemingly minor matter; the juxtaposition of a civic saint with the trade in human flesh (or calcium, in this case). But the very intimacy of the story hints at this book's limitations. Like Washington's teeth, his life as told here is less than fully rooted in its surroundings.

Let's be clear: "Washington" is a true achievement. A reader might agree with my criticisms yet thoroughly enjoy the book. That speaks to the triumph of Chernow's narrative structure, the depth of his research and how alive he is to the emotional content of dry material. In organically unifying Washington's private and public lives, he accomplishes a feat that eludes many biographers. And he propels readers forward. There were moments on my march to the end of his story on Page 817 when I thought he could have shortened the trip, yet I still felt that the writing was purposeful, not merely encyclopedic.

He attains this despite an uneven prose style. At times, cliches and dead phrases rustle noisily on the path. ("Throwing caution to the wind," Washington found the "cards stacked against him" and had to "cool his heels.") Chernow pumps up descriptions as if he were Stan Lee writing about Spider-Man: The "powerfully rough-hewn" Washington's "matchless strength" increases to "superhuman strength" in the same paragraph. The breathlessness becomes counterproductive. An assertion that a wilderness expedition was "incomparably daunting" naturally calls to mind entirely comparable journeys.

But the grand redwood forest of Washington's life draws attention away from the debris underfoot. Chernow builds sympathy for a man born into the ruling class of colonial Virginia, the slave-owning gentry. Desperate for a commission in the king's army, young Washington resented the mildest slight. He stumbled in battle, won glory and learned to discipline himself. When the Revolution came, he was ready to lead. His strength of will and sheer presence helped keep an underequipped and undermanned army in the field for year after shoeless year.

Chernow splendidly describes Washington's troubled relationship with money. The Father of His Country owned a great deal of his country -- tens of thousands of acres -- and scores of slaves. Yet he was constantly in debt, thanks in part to his lavish lifestyle. He even needed a loan to attend his own presidential inauguration. Financial matters eroded his storied self-control; he became by turns inventive, infuriated and self-pitying. Chernow honestly explores Washington's contradictory ideas about slavery, too. He endorsed abolition yet, short of money, drove his slaves hard and secretly pursued runaways during his presidency.

Chernow's goal is to humanize Washington. He succeeds handsomely, depicting an irreducibly complicated figure. Remarkable as Washington was, however, he remained embedded in his times. Unfortunately, Chernow doesn't really engage with the scholarship of Bernard Bailyn, Pauline Maier, Edward Countryman or the many other historians who have revealed so much about 18th-century America.

Take Washington's obsession with appearances, with expensive carriages and fashionable clothes. To understand it, we should know that contemporaries saw social stratification as not only natural, but desirable. In an age of multilayered property requirements for enfranchisement, Americans deferred to the leadership of the wealthy -- specifically, those rich in real estate. In theory, landed gentry passively collected rent and other income, which made them a disinterested elite, equipped to guide the rest of society. To be fully effective as a leader, Washington had to appear to be a man of leisure, rather than the debtor he was, tossed about by financial interests.

Yet the "radicalism of the American Revolution" (to use Gordon Wood's phrase) politicized a broad swath of middling sorts, who are largely absent from this biography. Chernow's account of Alexander Hamilton's struggle with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison naturally tilts toward Hamilton; more seriously, it doesn't capture the extent to which Jeffersonianism went far beyond Jefferson.

Washington and Hamilton sought to direct economic development from above, by, for example, incorporating the Bank of the United States. But Jeffersonians saw corporations as corrupt devices by which the king had granted favors to supporters; Adam Smith himself condemned corporations in "The Wealth of Nations." America's competitive individualism took root in this opposition to elite rule. As historian Joyce Appleby writes, "Smith's invisible hand was warmly clasped by the Republicans." It's worth reading "Washington" alongside "Madison and Jefferson," by Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, two academic historians more sympathetic to the views of Hamilton's foes. (Disclosure: I provided a promotional quote for "Madison and Jefferson.")

By the book's end, I shared Chernow's clear-eyed admiration for Washington as a selfless leader of the new republic. But the source of his greatness may have been that he so thoroughly embodied the values of a hierarchical culture that the revolution fortunately doomed.

T.J. Stiles is the author of "The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt," winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize and the 2009 National Book Award.


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