Presidential Biographies: George Washington, #1

I begin my quest to read at least one biography per President at, well, the beginning: George Washington. After carefully perusing reviews online and discovering a pretty cool website in which some guy is reading enormous amounts of biographies of each President (My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies), I settled on the massive (800+ pages of text, more than 900 pages overall) Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to the inaugural DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!!

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

I settled on this biography because it seemed to be the right balance between comprehensive and readable. Apparently, multi-volume biographies (with 4 volumes, in one case!) of Presidents exist. Not for me. Yet, anyway. Chernow starts with a rather brief section about Washington’s early life, covers rather extensively his adult life pre-Presidency, segues into an overview of the first Presidency, and closes briefly with a look at the life and legacy left behind.

I found this biography to be quite fascinating. Though the details on Washington’s early life were fairly skimpy, they did help set the stage for the rest of his life. It was very interesting to read about how Washington felt like an outsider regarding the elite among whom he often walked, even practicing his penmanship to try to blend in better.

The story of Washington as soldier and, eventually, revolutionary shed much light on him as a person. He constantly strained against the confines of being a Colonial vs. a British Regular soldier and searched for more pay. He was quite proud. The image we get in school of Washington as invincible is very different from the Washington who suffered numerous bitter defeats in the Revolutionary War. Washington’s interactions with Native Americans and slaves were quite revealing, showing that he was far more brutal than even he wished to paint himself.

The Washington Presidency is unique in that it, perhaps more than any other term, helped shape the idea of what a President of the United States ought to be. He defined the role during his time in office, for better or ill. From what I could tell through the biography, he helped balance a fine line of asserting the power of the executive branch while also balancing partisanship. A great many accomplishments can be set before the Presidency of Washington, perhaps none so important as the peaceful ceding of power to the next President. But apart from that, he helped establish the national bank, bolstered the economy through increased trade, worked to restore American credit, built relationships with other countries, opened the Mississippi for more expansion, and more. It was a highly productive Presidency and he should get the credit that is his due.

That said, we should also not get into the realm of hero worship. As noted, the picture we get in schools in the United States is a kind of invincible lion who was simultaneously beastly in battle and the picture of peaceful rightness when it comes to the moral sphere. But Washington owned slaves (see more on this below), brutalized Native peoples, was full of pride, made wrong choices, lost battles, and pursued a married woman early in his adult life. It is vastly important to have a realistic picture of the man rather than an invented one, and Washington: A Life gives that.

None of this is to say the biography was perfect, however. Though Chernow doesn’t seem to pull punches in showing the ills that Washington committed himself to, he also acts as an apologist at points, particularly in regards to slavery and the First Nations. For example, he writes that “Washington was never sadistic or abusive toward slaves…” but then immediately goes on to discuss how he saw slaves as being in a fair economic exchange with their masters, how Washington mocked a slave who had injured an arm and demanded he still work, and more (495). Moreover, though Chernow continues to object that Washington even knew some of his slaves by name, he also allowed overseers to beat some to death or kill slaves through neglect. He was an absentee owner during his years at the White House, but did nothing to forestall ill treatment of the slaves. Though he wished to free slaves, allegedly, he continued to prioritize his economic well-being over that of other human beings. Indeed, even Chernow comments that Washington hardly saw slaves as truly human; he saw them just as most others of his era did: as property.

Chernow’s irksome comments regarding slavery are mirrored in his discussion of Washington’s treatment of Native Americans. Though Washington allegedly wished for more peaceful relations with First Nations peoples, and apparently understood why they may be angry enough to kill European “settlers” who were stealing their land, he did very little to actually offset these atrocities and showed no hesitation in executing them or burning their crops when it suited him as “just punishment.” The comments about Washington’s desire for peaceful relations ring rather hollow here.

All of this is to say that Washington was a deeply imperfect man. He had a great number of faults. Though it would be unfair, perhaps, to judge him by 21st century standards of morality, a strong corrective to our image of Washington as perfect, peaceful, and the like is also much-needed. I learned a great deal from Washington: A Life and recommend it highly. Be aware of some of the remaining apologetics of Washington, however.

THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES*

My criteria for ranking the Presidents will be somewhat arbitrary. Random things I’ve thought of so far is whether they improved our infrastructure, how Presidential they acted/looked, whether they got us into any silly wars, and the like. As you can see, these criteria are somewhat… subjective. So you’ll probably end up disagreeing with me. I look forward to your comments!

1. George Washington: By default, he ends up at the top of the list for now, but that’s not to downplay the greatness of his Presidency. For one, Washington basically defined the office. It was left intentionally vague by the framers, so he had to work within those strictures while trying to expand on them. Not easy, but he seems to have done it rather ably, refusing to become a major partisan while still demanding certain powers of the Executive Branch. During his Presidency the national bank was created, the country’s credit recovered, massive trade booms occurred, the Mississippi was opened for exploration, and beneficial partnerships with other countries were being formed. On the other hand, during his Presidency and life generally, slavery was tolerated and even expanded, Native Americans were brutalized, and throughout it all Washington either participated directly or turned his face the other way. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of Washington on the office of the President. On the other hand, we ought not to lionize him or see him as perfection itself.

*Rankings not definitive

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SDG.