Best Washington Biography

James Smith
• Wednesday, 09 December, 2020
• 9 min read

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The journey to read the best biographies of every president from George Washington to Barack Obama seems a long and ambitious one. Having just finished nine biographies (by five authors) on Washington, it seems natural to pause for a moment to reflect on how far we have traveled.

Though these 1,800 pages required a significant time commitment, the reward was an understanding of Washington so deep and thorough that no other biography exceeded the experience. Here, in just over 400 pages, Cleaner captures the essence of what made Washington a unique historical figure.

This biography includes many charts, illustrations, maps and pictures which were not present in his earlier, larger work. Despite my fondness for this biography, his four-volume series was so strong that this abbreviation falls a bit short by comparison.

Cheroot’s masterful storytelling skills are on full display, and despite being the longest Washington biography in my library (with 817 pages) it proved brilliantly engaging. Neither is adequate for a reader hoping to get a comprehensive, and interesting, view of Washington from a single source.

While it provides some unique insight into that period of his life, it proves quite dry and the narrow focus requires the author to leave aside much which could otherwise be of interest. * More than 7 years after my first tour through George Washington’s best biographies I read Richard Harwell’s 1968 abridgment of Douglas South all Freeman’s 7-volume series which was published between 1948 and 1957.

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The former will find this an often laborious, dense and colorless reading experience devoid of context, foreshadowing and conclusion remarks. So although the abridgment was almost as enormous a feat of literary genius as it was writing the original series, it is far from ideal for most of its likely audience.

Augustine Washington was an ambitious man who acquired land and enslaved people, built mills, and grew tobacco. They moved again in 1738 to Ferry Farm on the Rappahannock River, opposite Fredericksburg, Virginia, where Washington spent much of his youth.

Among these are the stories that Washington threw a silver dollar across the Potomac and after chopping down his father's prize cherry tree, he openly confessed to the crime. It is known that from age seven to 15, Washington was home-schooled and studied with the local church sexton and later a schoolmaster in practical math, geography, Latin and the English classics.

The following year, aided by Lord Fairfax, Washington received an appointment as the official surveyor of Upper County. Lawrence’s only child, Sarah, died two months later and Washington became the head of one of Virginia's most prominent estates, Mount Vernon.

On October 31, 1753, Dinwiddie sent Washington to Fort LeBoeuf, at what is now Waterford, Pennsylvania, to warn the French to remove themselves from land claimed by Britain. The French politely refused and Washington made a hasty ride back to Williamsburg, Virginia's colonial capital.

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After a full day siege, Washington surrendered and was soon released and returned to Williamsburg, promising not to build another fort on the Ohio River. Though a little embarrassed at being captured, he was grateful to receive the thanks from the House of Burgesses and see his name mentioned in the London gazettes.

Washington was given the honorary rank of colonel and joined British General Edward Braddock's army in Virginia in 1755. However, the British were able to score a major victory, capturing Fort Duquesne and control of the Ohio Valley.

Martha brought to the marriage a considerable fortune: an 18,000-acre estate, from which Washington personally acquired 6,000 acres. During his retirement from the Virginia militia until the start of the Revolution, Washington devoted himself to the care and development of his land holdings, attending the rotation of crops, managing livestock and keeping up with the latest scientific advances.

Washington, in his will, made his displeasure with slavery known, as he ordered that all his enslaved people be granted their freedom upon the death of his wife Martha. Washington loved the landed gentry's life of horseback riding, fox hunts, fishing and cotillions.

Indeed, Washington's correspondence to friends and family makes frequent references to aching teeth, inflamed gums and various dental woes. In 1769, Washington introduced a resolution to the House of Burgesses calling for Virginia to boycott British goods until the Acts were repealed.

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After the passage of the Coercive Acts in 1774, Washington chaired a meeting in which the Fairfax Resolves were adopted, calling for the convening of the Continental Congress and the use of armed resistance as a last resort. After the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, the political dispute between Great Britain and her North American colonies escalated into an armed conflict.

In May, Washington traveled to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia dressed in a military uniform, indicating that he was prepared for war. Washington was the best choice for a number of reasons: he had the prestige, military experience and charisma for the job, and he had been advising Congress for months.

Another factor was political: The Revolution had started in New England and at the time, they were the only colonies that had directly felt the brunt of British tyranny. Political considerations and force of personality aside, Washington was not necessarily qualified to wage war on the world's most powerful nation.

He also had no practical experience maneuvering large formations of infantry, commanding cavalry or artillery, or maintaining the flow of supplies for thousands of men in the field. Washington and his small army did taste victory early in March 1776 by placing artillery above Boston, on Dorchester Heights, forcing the British to withdraw.

But in June, a new British commander, Sir William Howe, arrived in the Colonies with the largest expeditionary force Britain had ever deployed to date. In August 1776, the British army launched an attack and quickly took New York City in the largest battle of the war.

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Confident the war would be over in a few months, General Howe wintered his troops at Trenton and Princeton, leaving Washington free to attack at the time and place of his choosing. On Christmas night, 1776, Washington and his men returned across the Delaware River and attacked unsuspecting Hessian mercenaries at Trenton, forcing their surrender.

A few days later, evading a force that had been sent to destroy his army, Washington attacked the British again, this time at Princeton, dealing them a humiliating loss. General Howe's strategy was to capture colonial cities and stop the rebellion at key economic and political centers.

In the late summer of 1777, the British army sent a major force, under the command of John Burgoyne, south from Quebec to Saratoga, New York, to split the rebellion between New England and the southern colonies. But the strategy backfired, as Burgoyne became trapped by the American armies led by Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold at the Battle of Saratoga.

Without support from Howe, who couldn't reach him in time, Burgoyne was forced to surrender his entire 6,200 man army. The victory was a major turning point in the war as it encouraged France to openly ally itself with the American cause for independence.

Meanwhile, British General Howe clung to the strategy of capturing colonial cities in hopes of smothering the rebellion. Realizing their strategy of capturing colonial cities had failed, the British command replaced General Howe with Sir Henry Clinton.

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Washington and his men delivered several quick blows to the moving army, attacking the British flank near Monmouth Courthouse. Though a tactical standoff, the encounter proved Washington's army capable of open field battle.

For the remainder of the war, Washington was content to keep the British confined to New York, although he never totally abandoned the idea of retaking the city. Washington and his French counterparts decided to let Clinton be and attack British General Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia.

The British still had 26,000 troops occupying New York City, Charleston and Savannah, plus a large fleet of warships in the Colonies. By 1782, the French army and navy had departed, the Continental treasury was depleted, and most of his soldiers hadn’t been paid for several years.

Washington formally bade his troops farewell and on December 23, 1783, he resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the army and returned to Mount Vernon. For four years, Washington attempted to fulfill his dream of resuming life as a gentleman farmer and to give his much-neglected Mount Vernon plantation the care and attention it deserved.

The war had been costly to the Washington family with lands neglected, no exports of goods, and the depreciation of paper money. Since independence, the young republic had been struggling under the Articles of Confederation, a structure of government that centered power with the states.

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They fought among themselves over boundaries and navigation rights and refused to contribute to paying off the nation's war debt. But when Shays' Rebellion erupted in Massachusetts, Washington knew something needed to be done to improve the nation’s government.

Washington, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton had come to the conclusion that it wasn't amendments that were needed, but a new constitution that would give the national government more authority. In the end, the Convention produced a plan for government that not only would address the country's current problems, but would endure through time.

At first, he declined the $25,000 salary Congress offered the office of the presidency, for he was already wealthy and wanted to protect his image as a selfless public servant. However, Congress persuaded him to accept the compensation to avoid giving the impression that only wealthy men could serve as president.

Washington established broad-ranging presidential authority, but always with the highest integrity, exercising power with restraint and honesty. During his first term, Washington adopted a series of measures proposed by Treasury Secretary Hamilton to reduce the nation's debt and place its finances on sound footing.

Then, in 1791, Washington signed a bill authorizing Congress to place a tax on distilled spirits, which stirred protests in rural areas of Pennsylvania. Washington personally took command, marching the troops into the areas of rebellion and demonstrating that the federal government would use force, when necessary, to enforce the law.

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In foreign affairs, Washington took a cautious approach, realizing that the weak young nation could not succumb to Europe's political intrigues. The action infuriated Jefferson, who supported the French and felt that the U.S. needed to honor its treaty obligations.

Though controversial, the treaty proved beneficial to the United States by removing British forts along the western frontier, establishing a clear boundary between Canada and the United States, and most importantly, delaying a war with Britain and providing over a decade of prosperous trade and development the fledgling country so desperately needed. Secretary of State Jefferson desired to keep government small and center power more at the local level, where citizens' freedom could be better protected.

Those who followed Hamilton's vision took the name Federalists and people who opposed those ideas and tended to lean toward Jefferson’s view began calling themselves Democratic-Republicans. He strongly felt that political leaders should be free to debate important issues without being bound by party loyalty.

During his two terms, Washington rented the best houses available and was driven in a coach drawn by four horses, with outriders and lackeys in rich uniforms. Desiring to return to Mount Vernon and his farming, and feeling the decline of his physical powers with age, Washington refused to yield to the pressures to serve a third term, even though he would probably not have faced any opposition.

With the help of Hamilton, he composed his Farewell Address to the American people, which urged his fellow citizens to cherish the Union and avoid partisanship and permanent foreign alliances. In March 1797, he turned over the government to John Adams and returned to Mount Vernon, determined to live his last years as a simple gentleman farmer.

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Upon returning to Mount Vernon in the spring of 1797, Washington felt a reflective sense of relief and accomplishment. Many towns and cities held mock funerals and presented hundreds of eulogies to honor their fallen hero.

When the news of this death reached Europe, the British fleet paid tribute to his memory, and Napoleon ordered ten days of mourning. He set many precedents for the national government and the presidency: The two-term limit in office, only broken once by Franklin D. Roosevelt, was later ensconced in the Constitution's 22nd Amendment.

He was not only considered a military and revolutionary hero, but a man of great personal integrity, with a deep sense of duty, honor and patriotism. George Washington, a Founding Father of the United States, led the Continental Army to victory in the Revolutionary War and was America’s first president.

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