Presidential Biography Challenge discussion

Washington: A Life
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message 1: by Meg (new) - rated it 5 stars

Meg (mege_n) So I am up to the inauguration in Washington, A Life.

For me, so far, I think the thing that sticks out is that I don't think I would have liked Washington as a person. I don't think I would have been terribly impressed by his handling of his estates or his career.

Most of all, I don't care for his aristocratic attitude. I don't mean his desire to be as posh as the cousins across the sea. I mean his I'm-the-victim attitude.

As an example, when discussing his perspectives on slavery in different letters, Washington constantly seems to come back to the idea of slavery as this horrible thing that has been placed at the feet of the founding fathers to solve, that they are the victims of slavery more than anyone else. Now, slavery as an immoral institution aside, this seems to be Washington's opinion many times something happens to him - Mount Vernon is failing because he is the victim of debt that he HAS to incur is another example that was discussed at length at the beginning of the book.

I was really surprised that, so far, I just don't like the guy.


Mike My perspective is coming from a little earlier in the book, but I wonder if the thing is more that people in this era kind of had to be un-likeable to us in order to get ahead. Identity is always performative, but it seems to be so rigid and demanding in this era in ways that create tremendous amounts of insecurity and unease. It couldn't have been easy to live that way.

So, yes, Meg, I'm with you that he's not a guy I find very likeable, but I think I might have a little more sympathy for him. At least 200 pages into the story, that is.


Mike Is anyone else struck by how bad Washington was as a general for the most part? It seems more like luck that Howe and the British didn't go in for the kill right away than Washington's abilities in the field. Interesting to think how little that is discussed. Then again, as this book wonderfully shows, Washington the man is very different from the myth we tend to view him as today.


message 4: by Meg (new) - rated it 5 stars

Meg (mege_n) That is a common thread throughout his life. He is very rarely great on the battlefield. Even during the Revolution, his ability to keep troops together and maintain what supplies he had were his most important contributions to the war effort. Most of the great wins for the Patriots can usually be attributed to someone else.


Mike It's interesting to imagine what Washington's fate would have been if a stronger political system had been in place. As a general, he reminds me a lot of George McClellan in the Civil War. McClellan was a great organizer and pulled the army together, but he was completely unable to handle action on the field. Due to his failures, Lincoln got rid of him until he found a general who could win the war (much as the British did with their own leadership during the Revolution.) Obviously, it's impossible to say, but imagine if after the first few disasters Washington had been replaced with Charles Lee or Horatio Gates. Do we still win the war? Who ends up as the first President? My hunch is we still win and either Hancock or Adams is first President. But that's just a guess. What do the rest of you think?


Lisa Funderburg (grubrednuf) | 45 comments Wow so behind in the discussion. First thing, I'm done! Meg- I think Chernov agrees with you- he constantly comes back to the theme of victim slave owner. But I have to say (spoiler alert :)) Chernov notes, however progress Jefferson and any other slave owner might profess being, Washington was the only one (president or official) that actually freed his slaves in his will. I think Washington was a product of his time. I was shocked/bemused at his spending. He might have been meticulous in record-keeping, but he bemoans his continuous debt at the same time indulging in clothes and furnishings from Europe. Also agree about his absurd luck on the battlefield- not only from bullets, but not really winning any battles but manages to win the war. Mike- I like to think that John Jay might have been closer to first presidency than Hancock, but that's based off my limited knowledge gleaned from this reading. I felt that Jay played a large role in the beginnings. I also enjoyed reading about our nation's birth from a different vantage point. Considering the caricatures/personalities of Adams and Jefferson presented here, I feel that Washington was a great first choice. He was not self-serving,abhorred the limelight and set some precedents regarding protocol. I think Adams as first president, would definitely be a celebrity politician and serve the people second.


Mike I was struck by Chernow's claim that if Washington had died and Adams had taken over that the federal project would have failed. I know Adams is abrasive, but he did win the presidency in 1796, so how unpopular could he really have been? Did anyone else think this was an overstatement?


Lisa Funderburg (grubrednuf) | 45 comments I don't think he was a villain. I personally don't think I can develop much of an opinion of Adams from a Washington biographer. I think McCullough's book will help flesh out my opinion.


Mike Well having studied the period a bit in school, I know that Adams was definitely a much more abrasive character than GW. He was also insecure in a much more open way. I love the quote Chernow uses where Adams says history will remember the Revolution as Ben Franklin striking the ground with his lightning rod and Washington emerging from the ground. And of course, he was right. Adams is hugely important to the Revolution and the founding of the country but we mostly remember Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson. I'm sure we can talk more about this when we read about Adams.


message 10: by Elisabeth (new)

Elisabeth | 25 comments Washington had to read up on military strategy and war. He purchased several books in preparation for the war. I find myself wondering if he was so popular because he was really tall and kept his mouth shut. The strong silent type. One theory about his lack of verbosity is that his false teeth were uncomfortable to speak with.


message 11: by Mike (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mike So has everyone finished with Chernow by this point? Final thoughts before moving on to our next book?


message 12: by Meg (new) - rated it 5 stars

Meg (mege_n) Embarrassingly I am still working on it - bad group leader, me! But I'm plowing through it in the evenings so I should be done by this weekend.

I do still stand by my belief that I don't think I would have particularly liked Washington for most of his life. By his second term, I'm finally starting to sense the end of his false modesty and his aristocratic tendencies, and in that I'm liking him more. This could also be because I'm a big Hamilton fan. Also a big Adams fan. Really I just identify with the jerks.

I still believe that what made Washington great was his ability to be what people wanted him to be. His silence, his stature, and his populism in the war (Hey Congress, mind feeding your troops?) meant that no matter what he was above reproach. It almost feels blasphemous to type this but I get the sense that Adams was right, and that Washington's abilities are highly over-exaggerated because he was a symbol. That being said, as a symbol he was what the country needed him to be at the time to hold everything together. Does it make him a great man? I really don't get that sense, but he was necessary and he was certainly capable.

As far as the slave thing goes, I'm not very hung up on it except as an example of his larger handling of the world. He really saw himself as a victim of slavery, not his slaves. It seemed whiny and wimpery to me and that was such a turn off. So yes, while he did actually free his slaves, he did so only when it could no longer affect him or his wife one way or the other - except to put him on the right side of history one last time, which was a big motivator for him.

What I was most impressed with, though, was his ability to look to manufacturing for the future of the United States. Not because he supported the agrarian future or the industrial future for the country, but because he saw firsthand how harmful it was for the Army to rely on foreign nations for manufactured goods. It was a weakness that couldn't continue. It was a down-to-earth, sober look at the situation when everyone around him was screaming about ideology. Honestly of the entire book, I think that part was where I had the most respect for him. And it was a lot of respect.


message 13: by Mike (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mike I like the idea between great versus necessary that you raise here, Meg. I'm curious how you draw that distinction. It seems to me like so much of the Washington mystique was built around him by others, perhaps for similar reasons of need. We need a leader who is great even if the reality of who he is and what he did doesn't really add up to a man we would actually call great.


message 14: by Meg (new) - rated it 5 stars

Meg (mege_n) I think it is all perception. Necessary is boring, it is wonky, it is dirty in the weeds. Great is charismatic, is grand gestures and sweeping emotions. Though maybe that's my desire for modern leaders painting over my study of older ones.


message 15: by Mike (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mike That's a really good way of putting it, Meg. I think it's inevitable to read these stories in light of our own political moment. You hear that all the time when pundits wish Obama were more like LBJ or Lincoln or any other great leader. Yet in their eras, the pundits were attacking them for being poor leaders. Perspective/perception is always a funny thing.


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