A painting of an aging George Washington by Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827).… (The Penguin Press )
Penguin Press: 906 pp., $40
On Dec. 14, 1799, an ominous, fog-like gloom hung over Mount Vernon. Sixty-seven-year-old George Washington was dying. The ex-president, his doctors believed, was suffering from "quinsy" (a throat inflammation). In fact, Washington had contracted a vicious bacterial infection. His windpipe was swollen shut. Washington may have defeated the British at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, but an inflamed epiglottis got the best of him in 1799. "Though he never complained," biographer Ron Chernow recounts of those last hours, "Washington was expiring in a particularly gruesome fashion and constantly gasped for air."
There are many ways to measure greatness. But the poised manner of Washington is a gold-star example of a brave life lived with honor. Seeking no religious comfort or last rites, Washington's only deathbed request was that he not be buried until three days after his expiration; he feared consciousness while being underground. Terms agreed-upon, Washington smiled contentedly. "I feel myself going," he whispered. "I thank you for your attentions, but I pray you to take no more trouble about me. Let me go off quietly. I cannot last long."
Until his last breath, Washington epitomized self-control, sterling judgment, old-fashioned civility and noblesse oblige. Cultivating aloofness as his political sword, the 6-foot-2-inch Washington owned any room he entered. All these qualities come bursting forth in Chernow's "Washington: A Life," an epic, cradle-to-grave biography destined to win a slew of book awards. A Brooklyn native best known for his brilliant studies of Alexander Hamilton and John D. Rockefeller, Chernow displays a breadth of knowledge about Washington that is nothing short of phenomenal.
An epic life
Though Douglas Southall Freeman, for my money, still owns the franchise in Washington studies with his magisterial seven-volume biography (written between 1948 and 1957), never before has Washington been rendered so tangibly in such a smart, tenaciously researched volume as Chernow's opus. Chernow has found his perfect subject. "Where other founders gloried in displays of intellect, Washington's strategy was the opposite: the less people knew about him, the more he thought he could accomplish," Chernow writes. "Opacity was his means of enhancing his power and influencing events."
All the other so-called Founding Fathers — Benjamin Franklin, , John Adams and the rest — glittered in print or public forum, finding value in winning debates and settling scores. Washington, by contrast, was all about consensus-building, operating above the fray, being the North Star in a galaxy all his own. Not that Washington didn't have his way with words. His description of Valley Forge as being "little less than a famine" sounds exactly right. And his writing that New York City was the "fountain of all intelligence" likewise has a ring of truth about it. But it's Washington's outstanding performances — not his sharp-minded ideas — that we celebrate.
Man of the people
Growing up, Washington had been fiercely ambitious, concerned with making money and gaining fame. By the time he turned 40, however, he had served America more than his own self-interest. Refusing to ever self-aggrandize, he always gave credit to the institution—whether it was the Continental Army, Masonry, matrimony or the Office of the Presidency—over the individual.
Unusual for an aristocrat, the curse of elitism never consumed Washington. He was not a dandy. Shortly after he was inaugurated president on April 30, 1789, in New York, for example, he made the wise decision to visit all 13 states at once. Because he was a Virginian, a man of the South, protocol dictated that he first tour the North. Washington conceived the trip as a listening tour, a chance to sample public opinion. Thomas Jefferson mocked Washington for not offering any copious new ideas on this tour, for lacking a "fluency of words." Sometimes Washington would simply listen to farmers, shop-keepers, and ministers carp without offering rebuttal. Chernow offers the novel theory that Washington sometimes stayed mum because he didn't want his dentures to pop out. "Opening his mouth relaxed the pressure on the curved metal springs connecting the upper and lower dentures, which might cause them to slip out," Chernow explains. "That Washington risked such embarrassment in order to make direct contact with the people shows his self-sacrificing nature."