Many years ago, Sarah Marshall and Amelia Laing went to high school together. They laughed, they cried, they wore regrettable outfits to underage dance clubs. They traded books, sweaters, and anxieties, and somewhere along the way they took AP US History together, and learned, all told, surprisingly little. Now, as they make their way through a different but equally ridiculous phase of their lives, they have set out to remedy this oversight by reading biographies of all the presidents, in order. It’s going to get hairy around Harrison.
This time up, as an accompaniment to Presidents Day weekend, it’s George Washington, and the books discussed are David McCullough’s 1776 and Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life.
Sarah: Before we start our discussion, I’d like to get all the clichés out of my system. George Washington! He was tall and regal and chomped on pounds and pounds of cherries with his wooden teeth! He invented cocaine! He could not tell a lie! He was like Ella Enchanted that way! On the Delaware! In fact, he loved cherries so much that they may have killed him! (No, wait, that was Zachary Taylor.)
Truth be told, most of what I knew about Washington before reading 1776 came from the John Adams miniseries (in which he was played by David “Brutal-Howell-from-The Green Mile” Morse), and a book I read in third grade, memorable mostly for containing a lot of guys going “Huzzah!” I still find the word deeply enthralling. I hope that Washington did, too, at least on some level, but he may have been above that.
I certainly know more about him than I did a few weeks ago—low bar!—but I have to say that Washington still didn’t seem quite like a flesh-and-blood figure to me by the end of 1776. This was probably the book’s greatest weakness, as well as its greatest strength. Though Washington is at its center, it’s certainly not a biography, and though I think David McCullough would say that Washington played a more decisive role in the revolution than anyone else in England or America, he also clearly means us to understand that Washington’s victory relied on countless other factors—as every victory does.
Amelia: Here I have to say, Mlle. Marshall, I think you kind of started Sarah and Amelia’s Presidential Year off by cheating. While you were blithely flipping through the, what, three-hundred-page 1776 (which, I want to remind our readers, is not even a biography), I was trudging through Ron Chernow’s 817-page cradle-to-grave tome, Washington: A Life.
But, no matter, I still love you. So. Washington.
Great title. Not. I don’t see why Chernow couldn’t come up with something more inventive and descriptive, such as:
Washington: He Wasn’t Hamilton’s Bitch
Washington: He Freed His Slaves in the End, Okay?!!
Washington: A Man Who Got Ahead by Shutting the Fuck Up
Washington: Author of the Most Boring Diary Entries Ever. I Mean, Really, Ever.
Title aside, Chernow does a good job of providing his readers with a comprehensive, easy-to-digest view of Washington. He starts off by stating, correctly, that history has made of Washington a marble statue, a waxwork, an unemotional, admirable, stoic figure, and that these very same qualities have made Washington… well, boring in the eyes of many.
But he wasn’t! Chernow asserts. Washington was deeply emotional. And deeply interesting. And Chernow’s going to prove it to you.
Sarah: Reading 1776 instead of a million-page-long biography isn’t cheating, it’s getting creative—just like in high school. Well, okay, maybe not exactly like high school, because I didn’t just read the first 30 pages and try to base all my opinions off them. Which is why I won’t spend all my time here talking about George III and the House of Commons, which is what McCullough focuses on in his first section-—a move that I love, and not just because historical House of Commons shenanigans are always entertaining. You may think the House of Lords was a party, but the House of Commons boasted the always memorable Edmund Burke—who, despite his sympathy for the Americans and his belief that England should attempt to make peace, still referred to them as “our” colonies—and Burke’s brilliant, foppish protégé, Charles James Fox, who, like the smartest kid in your AP History class, never did his homework and always dazzled everyone in the room. As Britain was still reeling from its losses at Bunker Hill, Fox said of the coming war that he could not “consent to the bloody consequences of so silly a contest about so silly an object, conducted in the silliest manner that history or observation has ever furnished an instance of.”
One of the questions 1776 sets out to answer is how right Fox was in his claims. He—and many others—believed the war could only end in a British defeat, and of course they were right. But his characterization of the war as “silly,” while somewhat hilarious, still raises American hackles. From elementary school on, we are trained to see the Revolutionary War as an unstintingly noble contest, illuminated by the radiant light of liberty and justice for all, for we hold these truths to be et cetera et cetera. I would even argue that, of all the wars America has fought, it is the most relentlessly glorified—more than World War II, which is still too recent a memory, and was documented too fully, so we can only see it side by side with its carnage; more than the Civil War, which we are taught to think of as necessary in deciding our natural character and ending slavery, but as having done so only through regrettable tragedy. But the Revolution is our origin story, and so it is not about slaughter and disease and endless, grinding hardship (which it was—it dragged on for twice as long as the Civil War), but about liberty, equality, and valor.
And perhaps it’s because we see the Revolutionary War in such a positive light that the Founding Fathers have become so iconic and beloved. Here is Benjamin Franklin, brilliant, soused, and slutty, flying a kite and a lightning storm with one hand and pushing a wheelbarrow through the streets of Philadelphia with the other—the Founding Fun Uncle. Here is John Adams, vinegar-lipped, articulate, uncompromising, and wise. And here is George Washington, enormous and bewigged, uniform immaculate, face hewn out of marble, the noble, flawless leader without whom the war could never have been won.
What McCullough and Chernow both do is challenge that view, both of Washington and of the war as a whole, and show them, instead, as what they were: a desolate, often miserable slog in which defeat seemed to loom at every corner, and a confused, unprepared man whose experience in war was a trial by fire—as well as ice, mud, disease, and incompetent troops.
Amelia: Washington, who didn’t cut down a cherry tree, who didn’t have wooden teeth (his dentures were made of ivory and human teeth, sometimes using the teeth of slaves), was an intensely private man who always had posterity’s opinion in mind. Given his aloofness, it’s easy to see how Washington the man became Washington the Mona Lisa gracing the American dollar bill. Not necessarily as pretty, but just as enigmatic.
Chernow wants to re-introduce his readers to Washington the man, flaws and all. In his preface, Chernow hopes that “readers, instead of having a frosty respect for Washington, will experience a visceral appreciation of this foremost American who scaled the highest peak of political greatness.” Washington: A Life is one part PR make-over, one part reverential eulogy, and one part “Washington: Behind the Music.” Washington doesn’t only deserve our respect, Chernow implies, he deserves our love. I can imagine that most biographers feel this way about their subjects, at least a little.
Despite his lauding of Washington’s “unerring judgment, sterling character, rectitude, steadfast patriotism, unflagging sense of duty, and civic-mindedness,” Chernow does an admirable job of looking with a discerning eye at all aspects of Washington’s life, including the bad. His treatment of Washington and the issue of slavery is an area where Chernow shines as a popular historian, succinctly summarizing a very complex, well-worn theme:
The good: Writing in 1775 to Phillis Wheatley, a 22-year-old slave and poet who wrote “To His Excellence, George Washington,” Washington extended an invitation: “If you should ever come to Cambridge or near headquarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favour[e]d by the Muses and to whom nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations. I am with great respect your obed[ient] humble servant.”
It is a nice story, but let’s not get carried away. Yes, Washington did free his slaves upon his death, and yes, he did regard slavery as an inefficient system. He respected slave marriages, and made it a point to never separate families. But…
The bad: He made no substantive efforts during his lifetime to abolish slavery, content to leave that matter to future generations. In return for clothing and shelter, he believed from his slaves “such labor as they out to render.” Chernow relates a story of how Washington derided a slave with an injured arm. “Grasping a rake in one hand and thrusting the other in his [Washington's] pocket, he proceeded to demonstrate one-handed raking. ‘See how I do it,’ Washington said. ‘I have one hand in my pocket and with the other I work. If you can use your hand to eat, why can’t you use it to work?'”
Whether stories like these do Washington justice or not, they certainly show a different Washington that we aren’t necessarily accustomed to seeing. While Chernow stands firm on a few points (he denies that Washington was Alexander Hamilton’s dupe, and argues that Washington was not an indecisive general, just cautious), generally this biography presents the reader with the facts and lets the reader take away what he or she will.
Sarah: McCullough certainly pays homage to Washington—1776 centers on him, make sense, given his role in the war. However, I came away from the book far more impressed by the strength of the men he commanded—many of them incredibly young and incredibly untried. Of the Army’s march to New York, McCullough writes that “a five- or six-mile march before breakfast was usual, fifteen to twenty miles a day about average… on days of ‘wet weather’ and ‘very bad traveling,’ recorded a soldier named Solomon Nash marching with a Massachusetts artillery company, they made only about ten to fourteen miles, while moving ten brass field pieces.”
Once the Army actually reached New York, they found a city of 20,000 “crowded into an area of less that a square mile, less than a tense of the Island of Manhattan—or York Island, as it was then known… That far larger stretch north of the city, known as the Outward, was a mix of woods, streams, marshes, and great rocky patches interspersed with a few small farms and large country estates.” Lieutenant Joseph Hodgkins wrote, “This city York exceeds all places that ever I saw,” but that the cost of living was “excessive dear.” The Continental Army set up a hospital in King’s College, which had been founded in 1754 by royal charter of King George II, and was renamed Columbia following the end of the Revolution. McCullough describes it as “one of the largest, handsomest buildings in town,” though “the library books were removed, lest the soldiers burn them for fuel.”
Abutting the University was a district known as the Holy Ground, where as many as five hundred prostitutes welcomed the influx of new business brought to them by the war. Lieutenant Joseph Bangs took it upon himself to investigate the Holy Ground’s brothels—ostensibly in order to ensure his men’s safety—and wrote that “at first I thought nothing could exceed them for impudent and immodesty, but I found the more I was acquainted with them the more they excelled in their brutality.” Soon after the Continental Army’s arrival, the bodies of two dead soldiers were found in a Holy Ground brothel, one, Bangs wrote, “castrated in a barbarous manner.” This information presents only half a picture of occupied York Island, however, as McCullough also notes drily that a British officer “was cheered…but the number of soldiers being court-martialed for rape, this being perfect proof, he wrote, of…what a ‘spirited’ lot they were.”
Little details like these are my favorite part of any book, and without a doubt they’re my favorite part of 1776. Throughout McCullough’s wide-ranging discussion of pettish Englishman, underfed soldiers, and the women who played minor yet heroic roles throughout the war—among them Molly Corbin, who went into battle at Fort Washington alongside her husband, and took his place in action after he was killed—Washington remains somewhat aloof, and it seems McCullough would like to keep it that way.
A key to understanding this characterization seems to come with John Adams’ remark that Washington was one of the finest actors of the day. McCullough’s use of Washington’s private writing throughout the year shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that Washington was almost unceasingly besieged with fear and anxiety. In late September, Washington wrote, “Such is my situation that if I were to wish the bitterest curse to an enemy on this side of the grave, I should put him in stead with my feelings… I never was in such an unhappy, divided state since I was born.” Following his surrender of Fort Washington, he wrote to his brother that he was “wearied almost to death with the retrograde motion of things.”
Amelia: Washington: A Life also gives us a fuller picture of the country’s first president: the man who the Continental army together was also highly embarrassed of his teeth. Of Washington’s relationship with dentist Dr. Jean-Pierre Le Mayeur, Chernow writes, “he handled their relationship as furtively as if he were meeting a master spy…never mentioning such explosive words as dental or dentures in case unfriendly eyes stumbled upon it.”
The man who roused the Continental Army with the “fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage… of this army,” was awkward and stiff in the company of men, but quite at ease with women. He generally judged a party’s success based on how many women were in attendance, counting and recording in his diary the numbers: “There were upwards of 100 ladies. Their appearance was elegant and many of them were very handsome.” Kind of weird.
Sarah: And also much more like the behavior we expect from modern politicians—a comparison that can allow us to realize how dangerous it is to compare our current leaders to highly mythologized historical figures.
Amelia: Chernow’s biography pulls Washington off his pedestal, only to put him back on it with more realistic reverence. Reading Washington: A Life is a little like falling in love. And true love, as we all know, involves early-morning flatulence, annoying tics, and usually terrible in-laws. But the things we tolerate, we come to love, and so it is with the Washington who emerges here.
Sarah: Reading 1776 made me wish I could also read 1777-1783, but McCullough is, to be fair, a busy guy.
Read David McCullough’s 1776 if: You want an overview of the first year of the war, including its bit players and down and dirty details; you want to reassure yourself that going back in time to find cheaper rent on “York Island” isn’t a good idea; and you want to get a sense not just of Washington and his struggle but of the men who comprised the Continental Army, and of daily life in America in the very first year of its existence.
Read Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life if: You want a wide-ranging introduction to the man behind the myth.
Next up in series: David McCullough’s John Adams
(Sarah) and John Ferling’s John Adams: A Life (Amelia)
Related: Literary Vices, Rudolph Delson’s tour of the canon of vice-presidential literature, including Dan Quayle’s Standing Firm and Richard Nixon’s Six Crises
Sarah Marshall enjoys cooking presidential foods, and Amelia Laing enjoys eating them.