It doesn't take much to make me happy, but then it doesn't take much to annoy me either.

Washington by Ron Chernow

Almost finished with Washington by Ron Chernov. Excellent, excellent book. This is the third book I've read about people in colonial times. John Adams by David McCullough, 1776 by either McCullough or Thomas Fleming (can't remember which and it's not in my Kindle library) and now Washington.

It's always amazed me that things were not as clear cut back then as I had imagined. Not all colonists were supportive of the revolution, and that included George Washington's very own mother. Mary Washington is described as a woman who lived a sparse life, raising her kids without a husband around. George did his best to be a good son, but she never forgave him for going off to lead the colonists in the French Indian war. Their relationship deteriorated from that point forward. But then to find out Washington had to balance the embarrassment of his own mother being a Tory - amazing.

Even after George's success leading the Continental Army against the British, leading the Constitutional Convention, and becoming the 1st president - all to the accolades of an adoring public - even then, Mary Washington was at odds with her son. Never would have imagined that.

Other surprises - the French actually won the war for us. The decisive Yorktown battle was won primarily because the French were familiar with trench warfare and played a large part in using that to gain a humiliating victory over General Cornwallis and 9000 troops. Once the British were defeated at Yorktown, they pretty much pulled out of the war in America after deciding it wasn't worth the cost. Anti-war sentiments in England didn't help.

Washington was brilliant in his first battle at Boston, sneaking troops and heavy artillery to commanding vantage point in a surprise overnight maneuver. The British had an overwhelming advantage in troops and firepower, but after Washington attained position above them on Dorchester Heights, the British had to evacuate to their ships in the harbor.

From that point forward it was a war of attrition. Washington commanded a ragtag army composed of state militias, who's recruitments were committed to approximately 6 months of service. Essentially Washington had to retrain and re-motivate his army every six months. And the Continental Congress was unresponsive to Washington's pleas for more money for troops, equipment and supplies. Winters were brutal with many of the troops starving and freezing from lack of clothing and food. American farmers were selling their supplies at a premium to the British Army instead of supporting their own army. This frustrated Washington to no end.

And yet through all of that Washington commanded the respect and commitment of his Army. That alone is a magnificent feat for the history books, yet even then Americans realized how incredible the man was and idolized him to the point of his own embarrassment. After the war he couldn't travel very far without encountering adoring celebrations in each town, everyone wanting to show their appreciation and respect. He even tried bypass routes to avoid delays but inevitably had to stop and honor every little town's celebration.

Once the war was over he lead the Constitutional Convention, helping to bring together the checks and balances of executive, legislative, and judicial branches. As president his cabinet consisted of two of the most brilliant minds of the time, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. And yet these two major forces were at war with each other over ideological arguments. This difference caused Washington no end of headaches.

Through it all Washington maintained the view that the only goal was to launch and stabilize the new country for which he had fought and won. Political parties warred with each other, threatening the very stability of the country. In all of this Washington urged everyone to set aside their personal battles to strengthen the new Union. His heart was always yearning to return to his own home at Mount Vernon, where he could lead a peaceful life tending to his own farm.

One thing that really stands out is the topic of slavery and how blind Washington was to the problem. Here he fought for "freedom", and even spoke of wanting to do away with slavery, and yet couldn't quite take the actual step of freeing his own slaves. This blind spot is magnified when one of Martha's slaves, a close personal attendant named Ona Judge, runs away. Fleeing to the safety of an abolitionists care, she is subsequently discovered and Washington begins the process of bringing her back. Not wanting to cause a political scandal with abolitionists, he attempts discreet negotiations with the assurance that no punishment will occur. But Ona doesn't refuses to return unless there's a guarantee of freedom at some point in the future. Washington cannot understand why a slave wouldn't want to be taken care of by a benevolent master, and as a result Ona gains freedom by simply refusing to return. But it's painfully obvious that Washington considers the care he provides as an owner is more than offset by the submission to slavery - a deal that Ona Judge refused to accept.

Eventually Washington does indeed free all of this slaves, but this doesn't happen until his death as a result of his final will.

Last note on slavery... the Founding Fathers chose to ignore this issue, kicking it down the road for future generations to resolve. And it was resolved in the ugliness of the Civil War, one of the most devastating wars to be fought by any country. So much misery borne by so many, both slaves and soldiers alike, all because men who wanted freedom for themselves chose to ignore the obvious denial of freedom for those in their care.

Washington was not without fault, as no men are. Yet it's clear without a central figure like him to bring together citizens, soldiers, and politicians, the American experiment would likely have failed. He deserves every bit of respect and admiration.





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