Surveyor, Farmer, Statesman, General, President, Father of a Nation. George Washington held many titles throughout the course of his life, but few in the annals of history can claim the latter. He is a figure of legendary stature, both today and even amongst his peers. It is well known that part of this mystic and legend comes from Washington’s stoic, calm nature (the book’s author refers to him as ‘The Man of Marble’), but there is a lot more to him than that. And that is what makes Washington – A Life (Ron Chernow) so great, and while I feel it was important enough to warrant this post. While it is a beast of a book (comes in at almost a thousand pages), it is a text that should go on anyone’s to-read list who considers themselves a student of improvement and success, and who seeks to make an impact in the world. It is most definitely going on my Resources list.
The title of the text is very apropos to the subject matter, as this is a book purely on George Washington’s life. There is very little actual analysis in the book, even though it’s large enough to rival the Bible in density. Chernow simply relates facts and actions from Washington’s life, mostly through letters and first-hand accounts from the era. The amount of research and detail that must have gone into this book is simply staggering. But Chernow leaves it up to you to analyze Washington and draw your own conclusions on what made him so great. And because there is such a wealth of information here, its not that hard to do, and by book’s end you are left with a very clear picture of just who George Washington was and what it was about him that made him such a great leader.
The following is not a summary of the book or George’s life. It is simply a rather raw analysis of the details within the book, of Washington’s life and character, and what it was about him that propelled him into the legendary status he holds today. What other people can stand to get out of the book will vary, so I greatly encourage anyone else to pick up a copy or try out the audio version on Audible, which is extremely well done, and try it on for themselves:
George Washington was extremely ambitious at a younger age. He had no formal education, which led to a chip on his shoulder and insecurities (combined with his rural, poor upbringing) that would follow him his entire life. These insecurities would also shape much of his character. He had an extreme desire to be as upright as possible, to prove to people that he was their equal despite the lack of education. It also led to his strict moral and ethical code and highly disciplined nature that he is so famed for. And lastly, it led to a hyper-sensitive nature, and a deep desire to be accepted by the masses and avoid criticism if at all possible.
To help offset these insecurities, Washington sought out a mentor, someone who held the station he aimed for, and he found one in the prominent Lord Thomas Fairfax. Washington was not afraid to leverage contacts he made in his younger years, such as Fairfax, to push for new positions and promotions, although this would change later in his life as he became more modest and cautious of a power-hungry image.
He also studied other people. He was very observant for his age; he went into the surveying business because he saw that most successful men in Virginia were large landholders, and he saw surveying as the best way to get started in that arena, with plans to move upwards from there. He saw the end goal, and reverse engineered his way to where he had to start. This was the initial domino that created a chain reaction in Washington’s life. His surveying experience in the frontier led to a position within the Army during the French and Indian War. His success there led to his appointment for the Virginia House of Burgesses, where he stood out and was eventually elected to the Continental Congress, leading to his unanimous election as first Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, and eventually, the Presidency.
Washington was also an enormous proponent of self-improvement, and read voraciously as a youth to compensate for his lack of education (Read to Lead at its finest). He is quoted as having at one point said “Light reading may amuse for the moment, but leaves nothing solid behind.”
Speaking of Rectitude of Character…
Washington’s greatest asset was his moral fiber and trustworthiness. People trusted his character, his ethics. They also trusted him to always be coolheaded. People knew he would always do what was best for everyone, not just himself, and that he would not make rash or emotional decisions. He put the needs of the country before himself, and thought everything through (extremely left-brain). In deliberation, Washington always canvased the opinions of his surrounding colleagues, both during the War and Presidency, before making a decision. This stemmed from his insecurities in his education. He knew he wasn’t the smartest man in the room, and so trusted others’ judgments. He would take in all opinions, mull them over, then take whichever route he thought was best, versus trying to think of the solution on his own. Alexander Hamilton referred to this style with the saying “Consult much, ponder much, resolve slowly, resolve surely.”
However, he was not necessarily a superior field general. He was not quick on his feet in the heat of battle, and could be ponderous in his decision making as seen above. It was his character, not his mental faculties, that led the way – his utmost control of his composure and emotions. He provided the mental strength of will that held both the Army and the entire country together during those formative years. He never faltered in his public displays of confidence, no matter the amount of despair he felt at times inside. He willed the county into existence, although he had to use lots of force to do so (did not allow for slacking, i.e. drinking/gambling, and cracked down hard on those who did not uphold his own strict moral standards). But in wielding that force, he led from the front. He never asked his men of anything he would not do himself, both in character and in the actual fighting, and therefore commanded the respect of his men, who would follow him anywhere.
He would not have survived modern politics. He was not a very good public speaker, nor again, quick on his feet (in possibly the set of a long-lasting precedent, he didn’t write his own farewell speech from public office, instead having Alexander Hamilton write it for him). He also didn’t believe in campaigning or political parties – he was far too modest and humble. But people trusted in his character so much, that he didn’t need to. His reputation and personal brand proceeded him and spoke for itself, and he did indeed survive and thrive politically.
He was extremely tactful in these political dealings. His self-control and cordialness (both stemming back from his insecurities and desire to appear just and upright) led to a very discerning mind – he was very cognizant of the deep desires of all parties involved at a particular moment, parties both for and against him. He would deliberate for long periods of time, but eventually come to a decision that appeased all parties involved, or at least minimized the damage; he knew how to put people down lightly when he sided against them.
Strength Through Silence
Washington believed that power and friendship could not coexist. However, he was very social during his prime, despite his deep introversion. He attended numerous dinner parties – almost nightly during his time in House of Burgesses and Continental Congress, before the war. He also joined the Free Masons as a young adult. He aligned with their values, and saw a social opportunity to mingle with powerful figures. He also kept up enormous amounts of correspondence with acquaintances – he had to hire an entire staff team of writers just to keep up, and kept some amount of staff for the rest of his life.
Yet despite this social appearance, he always kept things cordial and at a familiar distance. He had a friendly, polite air, but never let people in to know his true feelings, keeping a very tight inner circle. He even advised his grandson to take a similar stance, telling him to closely evaluate potential friends to see which ones were truly worth having, and keeping the rest at an arm’s length. This same stance of familiar distance is echoed by Robert Gates, believed by many to be the best US Secretary of Defense in modern history (see his story here: Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War).
This distance, combined with his physical stature, gave the immediate aura of being a natural leader. His silence was often his best weapon, and was his primary method of dealing with opponents and naysayers during his public life. He would took the high road and simply ignore them, which only added to his legendary moral character. People saw that he would not stoop down to other’s levels, and held an even greater level of admiration and respect for him – he appeared to be simply unflappable, although in private this was far from the truth (was prone to private eruptions, unleashing the emotions and frustrations he bottled up and hid from the public).
Washington got heavily involved in local politics as a young adult to build up his reputation. In doing this, he was not abashed to make his opinion known, so that when opportunities presented themselves to his network of contacts, they knew to refer him or make him aware (this is how he was appointed to the Continental Congress before the war – a contact made him aware of a position on a committee that Washington was vocal about). But this too would fade as he aged, similar to his ambitious approach to push for promotions, and he became far more reserved and tight-lipped in his opinions once within the public eye.
He carried himself for the job he wanted, not the job he had. Again, this stemmed from his insecurities, but proved to be one of his stronger attributes. For example, Washington arrived at the first Continental Congress meeting dressed in his military uniform from the French and Indian war, juxtaposed to the rest of his colleagues, who arrived in more traditional garb. This immediately cast him in a military light, and put him at the front of the race for Commander-in-Chief when the time came to deliberate the formation of the Continental Army.
Lastly, he was an advocate for Good over Perfect. He favored an MVP model of growth, both politically and physically. He favored a government based off a living Constitution, a government that could evolve and expand its powers over time, and figure out boundaries as it went. The same went for Mt. Vernon and Washington DC, both of which were designed under his eye and leadership. He desired to start with the bare necessities, and build out both properties over time when the need for expansion arose, opposing the more common desire to build everything that would eventually be required at once, which took monumental amounts of time, particularly during that Revolutionary Age.
Again, this is an analysis, not a book review. If you make it through the entire book (I can’t encourage the audio version enough, reading the actual text can be a slug at times, and the narration is excellent), let me know what you think or other insights you got out of it – there is always something different to take away based on the perspective you bring in. Comment below, or you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.