As part of Project President, I’m attempting to read biographies of all our Presidents in order of their election to the post. So this month, I started with George Washington.
There are a ton of biographies to choose from about the first President. I chose this one as it is the first in “The American Presidents Series” I found on Amazon. Since I knew a decent amount about Washington, I thought this would be a good gauge to see if I could just breeze through this series. It turns out, I will not be doing that.
Burns and Dunn spend almost no time whatsoever on Washington’s upbringing or go into details about his service in the Revolutionary War. My guess is the reason for the latter is because there are already so many books about the Revolutionary War that they felt the reader would just choose those if that was what the reader was looking for instead of a biography of a president.
The bulk of the 157 pages is dedicated to just that, George Washington’s eight years in office. It only spends about 5 pages on his post-presidency years but to be fair, that only lasted about 2 1/2 years tops.
The book is well written and I did learn/remember quite a bit about George Washington. The most notable item for me was what a hypocrite Washington could be:
“As if confirming that analysis, Washington and his friends repeatedly described their struggle with England as resistance against enslavement, displaying a kind of sophisticated indifference to their own collaboration in black slavery.” (p. 21)
He was not only hypocritical about the fight against England, but also about how government itself should work. Most people note the U.S. government is one for the people, by the people, of the people. Washington views were a bit different according to the book:
“Despite his repeated statements of interest in public opinion and his efforts to court and even influence it, Washington had little patience for opinion unfavorable to his policies.” (p. 122)
“Could ‘anything be more absurd, more arrogant, or more pernicious,’ he fulminated, than these self-created bodies that presumed to tell a representative government what to do? The clubs, he wrote disparagingly, were tantamount to government by the ‘Mob.'” (p. 123).
The next trait that became glaringly obvious throughout the book is his elitism. This wouldn’t be a problem generally given the age and the culture of that time period. But once again, he hypocritically (see a theme?) states:
“And finally the wealthy planter, who had refused a salary as commander of the revolutionary army, now warned against limiting the public sphere to men of private wealth. Calling for fair compensation for all government officers, Washington was urging a meritocracy in which men of modest means would not be excluded from ‘public trusts.'” (p. 133). But earlier in the book, it was noted:
“Acutely conscious of class distinctions, he looked down upon the poor settlers he encountered there, hating the time he had to spend with a ‘parcel of Barbarian’s.'” (p. 8).
The authors do a decent job of highlighting the views of John Adams, James Monroe, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson to balance out Washington. The book is pretty high-level about not only these contributors to our country’s foundation but also about George Washington himself. I think if I had to choose again, I would have chosen a different book that covered his whole life (I’m ok with the skipping over the Revolutionary War since there is so much material on that topic). Of course, I’m glad there was no mention of wooden teeth or the cherry tree! I’m going to try to ensure that I dig as much as I can for biographies of all the other presidents and use this series as a last resort. I’m guessing I’ll have some difficulties with the lesser known/shorter term presidents like William Henry Harrison or Franklin Pierce. Do you have any recommendations?
Overall, I would give this book 2 1/2 stars. It’s too short to do justice even to the eight years it focuses on and while I like the color of adding views of the other founding fathers, I think it could go into more detail about Washington himself. But maybe that was the point of the series?
Next up: to fill out more about George Washington, I’ll be reading “George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring that Saved the American Revolution” by Brian Kilmeade. February will bring the start of the very large book (over 650 pages I believe) “John Adams” by David McCullough to cover our second President.