In This Review

Washington: A Life
Washington: A Life
By Ron Chernow
The Penguin Press HC, 2010, 904 pp

Chernow, a distinguished historian, takes on the most important and most difficult subject in American biography: the life of the extraordinary Virginia colonial who, with his force of character, political skills, patriotic commitment, marmoreal propriety, and iron will, did more than any other person to establish the independence of the United States and make its republic work. From John Marshall onward, George Washington's biographers have usually failed. Washington was the nation's first performance artist: virtually his entire public life was a carefully constructed act, and writers have generally been unable to find the man behind the mask. Chernow's study of the young Washington, before the mask settled firmly into place, brings readers close to an insecure man fiercely determined to win honor and respect -- traces of whom can still be seen beneath the general and the president. The attention Chernow pays to Washington's life as a slave owner is revelatory: the irresolvable moral and economic dilemmas of the institution gave Washington little satisfaction and no rest, and by setting out both what he did and what he did not do about it, the account offers a uniquely insightful view of the contradictions and human reality underneath that impressive façade.