Ron Chernow has produced a very long but readable biography of George Washington.
The tale is hardly unfamiliar; Washington’s life has been immortalised in print on many occasions. We are taken through well-known episodes, from Washington’s early military exploits in the Seven Years’ War to his role as commander of the American Continental army during the War of Independence, and his subsequent political career as first president of the United States.
Chernow has a crucial advantage over his predecessors: the availability of the new edition of the papers of George Washington, so far running to some 60 volumes of diaries and letters, which provide many fresh insights into the man and his times.
Despite the abundance of sources available, to write a life of Washington is no easy undertaking. How does one capture the achievements of a national icon without lapsing into hagiography?
For American authors, writing with an American readership in mind, the challenge is all the greater.
Chernow sees his task as making Washington human; less of a monument and more of a rounded personality. Washington’s reputation is not the only barrier to this undertaking – his famous reserve and even coolness of character are perhaps still more of an impediment.
George Washington’s reputation was built in the War of Independence, and Chernow subscribes to the general view that Washington was an accomplished military commander; indeed, the architect of American success, finally secured at Yorktown in 1781.
We cannot measure Washington’s wartime achievements accurately, however, unless we place them in the appropriate context. Biographers, of course, always have to wrestle with the context problem: provide too much and the central character is lost on the broad canvas; provide too little and the subject’s importance is difficult to assess.
In this case, if we treat Washington as a military demigod, and exaggerate his successes, we run the risk of obscuring his very real achievements.
Chernow, like most American historians writing for a popular audience, presents the War of Independence as a struggle fought out in America.
He acknowledges (in passing) that from 1778, when the French became belligerents, the war became a much broader conflict for the British. But the consequences of that wider war are not properly considered.
For example, readers who are relying on Chernow’s narrative of battles and campaigns in America would be hard pressed to realise that as the contest between Britain and its European enemies (the Spanish and the Dutch, as well as the French) extended to the Caribbean, Central America, west Africa, the Mediterranean, and even Asia, the American theatre of operations inevitably declined in importance for the British government.
From 1778, the Americans were not struggling against the odds in an unequal contest, but were up against a weakened enemy that was forced to divert resources to other theatres.
In this sense, Washington was not the victor of the War of Independence; that accolade, if it belongs to any of the participants, should be given to the French, whose intervention transformed the conflict, and made it all but unwinnable for the British.
This contextualisation should highlight, not belittle, Washington’s achievement. His most important success was to keep the Americans in the war before 1778, when they fought alone, without allies.
By preserving the Continental army during this crucial period, he preserved the American cause. The key moment was surely the last days of 1776. Routed on Long Island in New York that August, his bedraggled troops were then pursued into New Jersey and seemed on the verge of collapse.
Only Washington’s bold counter-attack across the Delaware at the end of December saved the Revolution.
Stephen Conway is professor of history at University College London