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October 3, 2010
Ron Chernow
Author, "Washington: A Life" (part one)
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Info: This is the first of a two part series featuring writer Ron Chernow. This month, The Penguin Press is releasing his latest book, "Washington: A Life." The book is billed as "the first large-scale, single volume, cradle-to-grave narrative of George Washington." In this first part, Chernow talks about Washington's temperament, his marriage, and his friendship with Sally Fairfax. He also discusses Washington's relationships with other founding fathers including John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. In discussing Washington's health, Chernow says that the first president almost died twice in the first two years of his presidency. Ron Chernow is the author of five other books including biographies of Alexander Hamilton and John D. Rockefeller. In 1990, he won the National Book Award for his first book, "The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance."

Uncorrected transcript provided by Morningside Partners.
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Ron Chernow (part one) Host: Brian Lamb

BRIAN LAMB, HOST, C-SPAN: Ron Chernow, almost at the very end of your new book on George Washington you write, ”Late in the writing of this book I suffered a severe orthopedic injury that nearly derailed the project.” And then you go on to thank people. What happened?

RON CHERNOW, AUTHOR: I broke my ankle. I slipped on the top step of the stoop of my brownstone in Brooklyn and I smashed my ankle on three sides. But may in terms of the book, though, Brian, been providential because it forced me to slow down. And for three months I could do nothing but read so I did additional research.

And then when I returned to the book I found that I had a kind of sharpness and clarity, not to mention energy that I might not otherwise have had. So it was a terrible accident but there was a silver lining to it. And thank God now I’m OK.

LAMB: When did that happen in the process?

CHERNOW: That happened towards the very end. It was the – it was June, 2009. So I was very close to finishing the book. But I think that it’s good sometimes to step back from a project that you’ve been very involved with and to be able to look at it coldly and with fresh eyes, which can only happen if you put down the book for three months, which I was forced to do.

LAMB: What led you to write the first sentence as the following, ”In March 1793, Gilbert Stuart crossed the North Atlantic for the express purpose of painting President George Washington, the supreme prize of the age for any ambitious portrait artist.”

CHERNOW: Well, I start the book with Gilbert Stuart painting George Washington for a simple reason. His image of Washington became our image of Washington became the iconic image of Washington. And Gilbert Stuart, who was a genius as a portrait artist, is essentially – was essentially – in the same business that I am in terms of trying to penetrate the mystery and enigma of George Washington.

And I was not only fascinated by Stuart’s portraits but I was fascinated by Stuart’s comments on Washington because he spied another Washington lurking behind that very kind of reserved, stoical faηade. He saw a man with a tremendous force of personality. In fact, he said, Brian, that if Washington had grown up in the forest, he would have been the fiercest among the savage tribes.

And interestingly enough, the people who knew Washington best – Hamilton, Jefferson, Gouverneur Morris – they spied that same personality, someone who was much more moody and temperamental. You know we tend to think of Washington as this rather bland-but-worthy character, kind of swap shoe character, and he was anything but.

There was a tremendous, a tremendously fierce will that furnaced at this personality under this very reserved faηade that was boiling all the time.

LAMB: You say in your prelude to this book that you wanted a fresh portrait. How you know – after all that’s been written about George Washington, how did you go about finding a fresh portrait.

CHERNOW: Let me tell you how it started. When I was doing the biography of Alexander Hamilton, Hamilton had a feud with Washington late in the Revolutionary War, and Hamilton quit his staff. And Hamilton wrote a series of very perceptive letters about Washington where he said that Washington was moody and irritable and actually something of a powder keg. And I can remember being absolutely startled because I had read so much about Washington.

But these were significant dimensions of his personality that I felt had been overlooked by previous biographers. And the more that I read about Washington I saw that in fact he was a man of many moods, of many passions, of fiery opinions. But because it was all covered by this immense self-control, people didn’t see it.

And I think that what we’ve done in the very understandable, very laudable desire, to venerate Washington, we’ve sanded down the rough edges of his personality and we ended up making him bland and, dare I say, even boring a bit. And people at the time saw Washington as this very dynamic and charismatic figure. And I would love for contemporary Americans to share that kind of excitement that Washington’s contemporaries shared.

LAMB: So how did you go about this?

CHERNOW: OK. I was very lucky. But starting in the late 1960s, the University of Virginia began to produce a new edition of Washington’s papers. Very quietly every year another edition or two comes out. There are now more than 60 volumes of a projected 90 volumes. And this is a feast of scholarship.

To give you an idea, Brian, of how much more information we have about George Washington, the previous edition of his papers from the 1930s was based on 17,000 documents. The new edition, which started in the late 1960s is continuing, is based on 135,000 documents.

So we not only have every letter written by or to George Washington but – should I …

LAMB: Hold on..


LAMB: Unbelievable.

CHERNOW: Is this the curse of Ron Chernow?


CHERNOW: Unbelievable.




CHERNOW: Just – are you rolling?

WAYLON (ph): Yes.

CHERNOW: OK. Unbelievable.

LAMB: So how did you go about this?

CHERNOW: Well, I have to pay tribute to the new edition of Washington’s papers at the University of Virginia starting in the late 1960s that began to publish a new edition of his papers. Every year another volume or two appears. But they’ve now published more than 60 volumes of a projected 90 volumes.

To give you an idea, Brian, of how much more information there is available now than there was even a century ago, the old edition from the 1930s was based on 17,000 documents. The new edition is based on 135,000 documents collected from archives all over the world.

And what’s wonderful about this, you not only have every letter written by or to Washington published in sequence, but you have lavishly annotated letters where you get extracts from letters, diaries, contemporary newspaper accounts.

And so really using this new edition I had hundreds, maybe thousands, of eyewitness accounts that really made me feel that I could possibly do what has been so difficult for biographers to do with Washington, to bring him alive as a fully three-dimensional character, someone so vivid that if he walked in the room right now you would know what he looked like, how he sounded, how he thought, that he would be that real to you.

And because he was a very reserved, in many ways very repressed, character, it’s been subtle. You kind of have to tease out this tremendous force of personality. But suddenly we have so much anecdotal material that I feel that we really can try now to recreate the man.

LAMB: Here’s a couple things you read right away in the beginning, that ”he had a colossal temper.” How’d you find that out?

CHERNOW: Well, there are a lot of examples of Washington losing his temper. There was one cabinet meeting where Jefferson said that Washington lost his temper. He had been shown a satirical cartoon that showed him being guillotined the way that Louis XVI was guillotined.

And Jefferson wrote in a memorandum right afterwards that Washington lost his temper and had difficulty for several minutes regaining control of his emotions. And there are a lot of stories like this.

And people had noticed these before but had thought that they were more incidental to his personality. You know for me it suggests more all of these emotions boiling under the surface. Gouverneur Morris said Washington was such a passionate man, he had passions boiling in his breast almost too mighty for any human being to control.

This is very different from the way that we see Washington. But the people closest to him sense this tremendous intensity under the surface that would periodically, like a volcano, boil over.

LAMB: You said he was prone to tears.

CHERNOW: He was prone to tears many times. Again, the evidence is everywhere in his story. We all know the story about Fraunces Tavern, his farewell to the officers at the end of the war. There were 30, 40 officers standing at the long room of Fraunces Tavern and Washington said, ”I can’t come to you. Would you mind coming to me?”

They come, and Washington hugs them. And there were tears in his eyes. I was struck a number of times in writing the book how many times contemporary observers noticed tears in his eyes or this tremendous emotion that he was fighting off. He was a highly emotional man, but he was somebody who was always very reluctant to show those emotions and I think that someone who was always afraid of becoming a captive to those emotions so that he became an almost overly controlled personality, sort of emotionally muscle-bound in a certain way.

LAMB: You say that he was a man of fierce, irritable disposition.

CHERNOW: Yes. He also – I don’t want to overstate that side but you know I am stressing that simply because I felt that that was the overlooked dimension. This was also a man who in his dealings with political associates, with military officers, could, and often was, exquisitely sensitive and courteous.

I don’t want to paint the portrait of him as tyrannical, but just rather somebody who was very, very sensitive in dealing with people. And he had a tremendous sense of tact and courtesy. He was an exemplary figure in that way.

So really he was a very complicated man. This is a very tough nut to crack sociologically and psychologically.

LAMB: All right. In this day and age, what makes you think a 900-page book will sell?

CHERNOW: Well, I think that at the moment people are very disenchanted with American politics. And I think that they’re looking for heroic figures from America’s past. And there’s no figure who’s more heroic or fearless or courageous than George Washington.

But what I try to show in the book, Brian, almost as in the novel – and this is something that very slowly and gradually happens in his life – Washington, as a young man, although has an amazing kind of perseverance and doggedness about him, you could already see glimmers of a future leader.

He’s somebody who’s pursuing money, status and power. He’s not a particularly attractive character in certain ways when he’s younger, but he so transcends his past. He’s someone who’s so ennobled by circumstance that under the pressure of the Revolutionary War and then the Constitutional Convention, the creation of the federal government, these monumental challenges bring out this greatness.

And this is a man who ends up so much greater than anyone would have predicted who had read about his adolescence or his early adulthood. So I think that it’s a tremendously inspirational story at a time, God knows, when we all need a little bit of inspiration. I think the American public is pretty depressed at the moment.

LAMB: I want to just have you do a snapshot of several places where he was in his life. And we’ll come back to some of these.


LAMB: What did he do around Boston?

CHERNOW: Well, Boston, he goes up in July 1775 and he takes control of the Continental Army. He’s just been appointed commander-in-chief. And his presence there was extraordinarily important because the Continental Army was really composed exclusively of New England militia.

So one of many reasons that Washington was chosen, having the Virginia planter as commander-in-chief, suddenly gives a continental perspective to the continental cause, which it most certainly did not have before that. And it’s a moment where the Red Coats, the British, are bottled up in Boston. They’re really under siege from the Continental Army. And Washington manages to drive them out of Boston, and he has his first great victory, maybe a little bit of beginners luck because then he has enormous amount of difficulty duplicating that feat.

LAMB: New York.

CHERNOW: OK. He goes to New York, and that’s where he suffers a string of disasters. The Battle of Brooklyn, the British Expeditionary Force the largest of the 18th Century – is about to pounce on the Continental Army, not only wipe it out, wipe the whole revolution out. And Washington evacuates the entire army across the East River overnight, flees up to Northern Manhattan.

Unfortunately it’s not the last disaster Washington loses twin forts on opposite sides of the Hudson, Fort Washington and Fort Lee. And this begins this long bedraggled, demoralized retreat across New Jersey and across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania.

LAMB: Philadelphia.

CHERNOW: OK. In Philadelphia, well, what happens is that because there’s always a fear that the British are going to take Philadelphia, Washington and his troops’ first fight the British in Brandywine Creek hoping to stop them. It’s one of the battles, unfortunately, that Washington blunders because of faulty strategy and intelligence. He was far from a faultless military leader.

The British occupied Philadelphia and occupied until the spring of 1778.

LAMB: And Washington. Washington, D.C.

CHERNOW: Washington, D.C.

LAMB: Virginia, Mount Vernon.

CHERNOW: Well, let’s start with Washington, D.C. because under the Residence Act of 1790. Residence Act specified a 65-mile strip around the Potomac where a capital might be. It’s actually George Washington who goes on horseback and rides along the Potomac River who actually picks the spot where Washington, D.C. is going to be.

And of course there was a certain amount of grumbling at the time because, coincidentally or not, it was very close to Mount Vernon where Washington owned 8,000 acres. And it’s not accidental that the White House stands where it is because it faces south towards Mount Vernon.

LAMB: Something that you spent not a lot of time on but enough time that I wanted to ask you more about it because I had never thought about this. You know we always talk about the teeth and that the teeth were there at Mount Vernon to see. But what I never thought about – and explain this – is that because of this contraption that he wore in his mouth, he had a hard time speaking.

CHERNOW: Yes, this is not, again, a trivial aspect of Washington’s life, and not only because of the pain that it caused him. By the time that he was inaugurated as the first president, he had only one tooth left. It was a very lonely lower-left bicuspid hanging on.

He had a complete set of dentures made. And there was like the little hole drilled where that tooth was, and so the dentures were held in place by that one tooth. The way that the upper and lower dentures were connected was through a curved metal spring at the back. The only way that they stayed in the mouth was that the person had to keep the mouth and the lips closed because what happened, as you opened your mouth to speak, the pressure was released on that curved metal spring in the back and there was always the possibility that the dentures would come flying out of your mouth.

And I think that one reason, among others, why Washington as president intended to keep his speeches very short. He must have been very, very self-conscious about this. He was also a very laconic person who was not given to long-winded speeches anyway. But you can imagine how distressing it was for a man of Washington’s pride to always have to worry in any social occasion that these dentures would slip out of his mouth.

LAMB: Any history of when he started losing his teeth?

CHERNOW: He started his losing his teeth actually when he was in his 20s, even during the French and Indian war. It’s very funny, at the very end of the revolution, he has a French dentist named Pierre LeMieux comes to the Continental Army headquarters to work with Washington.

And Washington was so self-conscious about his bad teeth, Brian, I think that he thought that people would mock it in some ways that he doesn’t even enter that this dentist has come as if he’s meeting with some master spy and it’s so delicate that he can’t even you know record it in the rolls.

And then he had a dentist in New York named John Greenwood who was his dentist when he was president. And when Washington corresponds with Greenwood, he never uses such tell-taled words as teeth or dentures or anything like that. If Greenwood sends some dentures, Washington will write back, ”I received the items that you sent,” you know lest some prying party would see this and realize that Washington was corresponding about his teeth.

So it’s kind of funny to think of such a great man who was so self-conscious about this defect. Of course, for us it creates enormous sense of compassion. Particularly I examined up at the New York Library of Medicine, the Academy of Medicine, one set of his dentures. They’re very ungainly contraptions. And when you see them and you picture them rubbing along the gums day after day, you realize how agonizing it must have been to have those in your mouth. It was gruesome.

LAMB: You talk a lot about health. For instance I wrote down Washington suffered cruelly from hemorrhoids. What impact did that have on him?

CHERNOW: Well you know by the time that George Washington is 30 years old, he’s had smallpox, he’s had malaria, he’s had dysentery. You know in the 18th Century, if you lived to 50 or 60 you probably would live to 70 or 80 because there were so many epidemics all of the time.

And I think that Washington was a very hearty specimen who was able to survive all of these different illnesses. It probably also gave him the feeling – he came from a very short-lived family. His father died 49. His older brother, Lawrence, dies at 34. It probably gave him some sense that he was going to defy the odds of his family and actually have a long life.

And he dies at 67, which is actually much younger than the next five or six presidents. But by the standards of Washington males, Washington is unusually long-lived.

LAMB: But on that hemorrhoid question, the reason I bring it up is because you say he traveled lying down during these times.

CHERNOW: He had dysentery in the French and Indian War during the famous defeat of General Edward Braddock on the Monongahela River. And it caused diarrhea and not going into details, it was very painful for him to sit on his horse. And so it was an extraordinary example of Washington’s bravery riding in this battle.

He was tall. He was a very conspicuous target on the horse. And he actually took four bullets in his clothing – I think one in his hat and three in his coat. He had two horses shot out from under him. And a Presbyterian minister, Samuel Davies, said afterwards that it looked like the heroic youth George Washington was being preserved by Providence for some important future service for his country, which was certainly one of the great calls of any sermon in history.

LAMB: You said nobody touched Washington.

CHERNOW: Washington didn’t like to be touched. There’s a story – perhaps apocryphal – but it makes the point that at the Constitutional Convention that Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, were talking about whether or not this was true that Washington didn’t like to be touched. And Hamilton dared Morris to touch him, made him a bet that he would not go over and actually touch Washington.

Morris went over and gave Washington a slap on the shoulder and said, how are you today, General? And Washington apparently turned and gave him a withering glare that he never forgot.

Again, we don’t know if this story is authentic, but certainly people were shocked when Washington was embraced – for instance, Lafayette, who was like a surrogate son – many stories of Lafayette embracing Washington with both arms, in one case actually giving Washington a kiss across the face from ear to ear, which no one did.

But the fact that people recorded this was an expression of their shock that someone was behaving with this kind of familiarity. And Washington had a way of sending out signals that if you did not act familiarly -- he always told his subordinates – whether it was military, political subordinates – that one of the secrets of leadership was not to be overly familiar with your subordinates.

LAMB: This sounds like the same question but you also said he didn’t shake hands.

CHERNOW: Yes. Again, when he had the reception as president, he would kind of go around the room and he would just nod to people. Whether this was borrowed from royal practice because royalty didn’t touch people, we don’t – that was certainly was alleged by his political enemies that this was an aping of royal ways, which was a common criticism of the opposition party while he was president.

But he had this sense of personal dignity that was very much part of his power and very much a part of his mystique. I mean, Washington would never make it as a politician today because he didn’t press the flesh, he was not this glad-handing, back-slapping character that you have to be in politics today.

But I think that there’s something very attractive about the formality and the innate dignity of the man.

LAMB: You mentioned, paid tribute to James Flexner, who wrote lots about George Washington, and Douglas Freeman, Southall Freeman. What do you have in your book that they don’t have in their book?

CHERNOW: Well, number one, my book is based on the new edition of the papers, so I had probably somewhere between five to 10 times as much material to work with. They were both great writers. Freeman was a demon of research. As you know, he was a Virginia newspaper editor. Flexner had a lovely flowing style.

But I think also, Brian, the conception of biographies changed quite radically over the last century. At the time that Freeman is writing in the 40s or the time that Flexner is writing in the 60s, early 70s, biography is still the public record of a public man.

So now when we read a biography, we expect it to be a rounded portrait of the private person as well as the public person so that, for instance, I have a very detailed portrait of George’s marriage to Martha which you wouldn’t get in those books, not that those writers were incapable of doing it. It was just kind of considered of lesser importance.

I have a very, very detailed portrait of Washington as a slave holder. That again was seen as kind of more incidental to the life of a great man. So that there are various dimensions of the private man to be sure that you wouldn’t find in those biographies.

LAMB: Speaking of the slave question, there’s a note that you make back to the teeth issue where, if I understood right, George Washington bought teeth of negro slaves for his own use?

CHERNOW: Right. One of the wonderful curators down in Mount Vernon, Mary Thompson, discovered that Washington bought eight or nine teeth, he just marked it in his book from negroes, so we don’t know if that meant from his own slaves.

And I should explain that his dentures, the dentures were not made of wood. Let’s retire that. People thought it was wood because as – it was made of ivory, ivory walrus, ivory elephant, ivory – as that ivory aged and stained, it took on a granular look that when you look at it now might be wood.

But the ivory was actually the frame. They were actually real teeth inserted into the dentures. And so we don’t know this for the fact, but now that this has been discovered that he bought teeth from negroes – which presumably meant slaves – he may have had in his mouth teeth from his own slaves.

And I have to say, this may sound slightly ghoulish, but in the 18th Century this was considered acceptable. The dentists advertised – as Washington’s dentist did – dentists advertised in the newspapers and bought teeth from people. So if you lost a tooth, you would sell it. So it’s not quite as macabre as it might sound. But of course it’s quite startling to think that Washington may have been walking around with teeth from one or several slaves.

LAMB: The book, any idea what the first run is on that they’re going to put out in the market?

CHERNOW: I think large. I don’t actually know, as we talk, the exact amount.

LAMB: Would it be, I mean, 50, 60, 100,000? I mean, in the past you’ve sold a lot of books.

CHERNOW: Yes. It would be more than 100,000, I gather, from my publisher.

LAMB: And you’ve done a book on J. P. Morgan, The Warburgs.


LAMB: You also did a book on Alexander Hamilton.


LAMB: Which of those books were the most successful?

CHERNOW: Actually the graph keeps rising, fortunately. Each one has been more successful, at least in a commercial standpoint, than the one before. You know and what I’ve tried as an author is to keep broadening my focus to stay fresh.

And a number of people have commented the George Washington book is actually the first one that doesn’t have a large financial or economic dimension. And that’s true. I find what was happening after I did Morgan and the Warburgs and Rockefeller that I was being stereotyped. And I would go to give a speech and the people would start yelling out in the audience, do Vanderbilt next, do Carnegie next, as if I would spend the rest of my life just knocking off gilded age moguls.

And Hamilton was actually something of an exit strategy because I knew that there would be a very large financial dimension, obviously, with Hamilton. But it would lead me into constitutional law. It would lead me to foreign policy. And I think that with each book you have to try to expand your range as a writer otherwise you go stale. So I’m hoping that people who read the previous books won’t mind that with Washington there’s not a you know very big financial or economic dimension.

LAMB: When did you actually start this book?

CHERNOW: I started this book six years ago, so this is a record in terms of the amount of time that I spent on it. I have to say, even though you would say it is a very long book, I felt that I was writing it on the back of a postage stamp because the books that I had in mind, the standard references on Washington – the Freemans, the Flexners – the Freeman book is approximately about seven volumes. It’s about 4,000 pages. Flexner is four volumes, around 2,000 pages. I was trying to do the same thing in a single volume.

And what I noticed was – there’ve been a lot of wonderful books on Washington in recent years. But what I noticed was that people were either doing a year –like David McCullough’s wonderful ”1776”, or David Hackett Fischer’s terrific ”Washington’s Crossing” – they would do a specific event or Joe Ellis did a terrific book called ”His Excellency.” That was a thematic study of the life.

But the gap that I saw in the literature was the single volume cradle-to-grave biography that was authoritative and that would be all encompassing and that really tried to present a fresh portrait but to be a synthesis of all of the new documents and all of the new scholarship about Washington.

So I don’t know whether I succeeded, but that’s what I set out to do.

LAMB: Where did you spend your time along the way?

CHERNOW: Most of the time I just spent in my home office because you know usually what I do as historian, I travel to archives and I sit there wiping the dust off city records and straining my eyes to decipher handwritings whereas in this case, I was just able to buy these 60 volumes of the Washington papers. I supplemented that with 17 volumes from the old edition. I did go to almost all of the major Revolutionary War battlefields.

LAMB: How much of that did you really read?

CHERNOW: Of all those volumes?

LAMB: Yes.

CHERNOW: I can honestly say, Brian, I scanned every page. I can’t say that I read every word of every page, but I did scan. You know you develop sort of instinct as a historian in terms of seeing what is significant or what might be useful.

You know what I couldn’t do, there have been since George Washington died, 900 biographies. I couldn’t read every page of every biography. And I decided that I would focus more of my time and attention on going through original materials you know rather than traipsing through every single biography that had ever been written about Washington.

LAMB: In your book, and near the end, you also pay tribute to your deceased wife who died in the middle of all this in 2006.


LAMB: I mean, hard question to ask but what did that do to this whole process?

CHERNOW: Oh, well, this was you know this was the darkest period in my life. My wife and I were together for almost 28 years. And in addition to being the most wonderful wife a man could have, she played a very important part in my career. She was my muse. She was my confidante. She was my in-house editor.

Every night over dinner we would discuss the book, and invariably she would ask me a question that would send me scurrying back to the books. I used to read the books aloud to her, and she was a perfect proxy for my ideal reader because she was – she wasn’t afraid to suddenly interrupt me and say, ”Honey, I didn’t understand that word,” or ”Honey, that line isn’t clear,” or even sometimes, to my dismay, ”Honey, the book is dragging a little bit you know in this section.”

So she was absolutely invaluable. I was very grateful to this book, Brian, because I was working on it during the final year of her life. And then after I lost her, the book gave structure in my day. I was lucky every morning I opened a door and I stepped through it and I was in the 18th Century, which was a nice escape.

And remember, George Washington is a great story of someone coping with adversity. But fortitude means willpower, patience, forgiveness, acceptance, all of these different qualities that you see in Washington’s life. So he was actually a pretty good role model for me to have before my eyes, but it was tough.

LAMB: So how long was she sick?

CHERNOW: Well, she had ovarian cancer off and on over a four and a half year period.

LAMB: So what did you do after you lost her? How did you fill in that space with your you know that editing help every night?

CHERNOW: It was hard. I guess you know particularly my life is so solitary, but of course I would have Valerie there at breakfast. I would have Valerie there at dinner, so it was a solitude surrounded by this extraordinary marriage.

The solitude became quite harrowing when suddenly she wasn’t there. And I just was very, very fortunate in having terrific friends and family members.

I think that by the time I lost her, you know when you’ve been with someone for so many years, you’ve internalized that person. And so I found that as I was writing Washington, I began to say to myself you know I would hear her in my mind saying, ”Honey, that sounds very unclear.”

And in fact, what I did, sometimes I would carry on imaginary dialogues with her and I would imagine her kind of saying things and asking me different questions. But it was very hard. And I was actively worried about this throughout the writing that there was a very significant dimension here in my writing career had been lost and could I produce something that was worthy of the earlier books.

LAMB: You mentioned earlier that you spent a lot of time on Washington’s marriage.


LAMB: Where did that relationship start?

CHERNOW: Well, it started back in 1758. Washington was going to Williamsburg to consult a doctor. He had a friend, Richard Chamberlain, who knew this young widow, Martha Dandridge Custis, who was living, ironically enough, in a house on the Pamunkey River called the White House. I kid you not.

And she was this wealthy widow. It was a sort of whirlwind courtship. They met only two or three times before they decided to marry. And I argue in the book, I don’t think it was the lustiest or most romantic marriage in history, but I think it was one of those marriages that ripened into a very deep friendship.

And I think that Martha Washington is absolutely invaluable to George Washington. She gives him financial security. She was extraordinarily wealthy as a widow. She gave him emotional support, and he really need a confidante. He was a reserved character.

She was a real social asset. She was a great hostess, very good conversationalist. And you have a sense with Washington – as also often happens with single men – that once they marry, they go from having a kind of ruthless life to suddenly being settled. And God knows Washington, who is going to achieve these monumental things, I think really needed a very settled home life in order to do that. And Martha gave that to him.

LAMB: So we might as well throw Sally Fairfax into it at this point. And you know that – I mean, you wrote a lot about that.

CHERNOW: Yes. This is one of the great mysteries of Washington’s life because right on the eve of his marriage, he is infatuated with one of his best friend’s wives. Sarah Sally Cary Fairfax was the wife of George William Fairfax, who not only was a very close friend of Washington and they occupied Belvoir, which was this beautiful mansion on the Potomac just south of Mount Vernon.

But the Fairfax family, which controlled the Northern Neck Proprietary, the five million acres between the Potomac and Rappahannock River, the Fairfax family, they were Washington’s sponsors, his mentors. So he’s doing something really quite rash. And he writes a letter to Sally, it’s pretty much a declaration of love, which she rebuffs.

You know I concluded that this had to have been an infatuation rather than what I would call love. And I argue it this way, that infatuations can cool rather quickly when circumstances change. If it had been real love, it would have endured.

The fact that it didn’t endure we know because George and Martha Washington become very close friends with George William and Sally Fairfax. As I point out, after the marriage, there are periods where the Fairfaxes and the Washingtons actually travel together. They vacation together.

I think that if George Washington had really been in love with Sally Fairfax and that had been an enduring form of love, the idea of traveling for a couple weeks with your wife on one hand and the woman you love on the other hand just would not have worked out.

So there’s no question that he was smitten, and there’s no question that he writes what is a declaration of love, but I think that it fairly quickly cooled into something else.

LAMB: What documents survive the letters of exchange and all that from that period?

CHERNOW: Well, unfortunately we have more of the letters that George wrote to Sally rather than, we have very few that Sally wrote to George, which might supply some of the gaps in it. And it’s really just based on a small handful of letters that were discovered only – they came to light maybe in the 1950s. And of course, people were very shocked by this.

But again, as I argued about George Washington, he was a very passionate figure. And as I also try to show in the book, he was very attentive to women. The aphrodisiac of power already existed in the 18th Century. And I have many, many quotes in the book of you know beautiful young women swooning around Washington at various assemblies and balls, and of Washington taking very careful note of those swooning young women.

LAMB: Some of the things you wrote about his person, you said, ”Never able to express these forbidden feelings of rage. He learned to equate silence and a certain manly stolidity with strength.”

CHERNOW: Yes, I write about this in the context of his relationship with his mother. Washington had one of the more difficult mothers of all time. She was a very crusty, domineering, very self-centered woman who you would think that the mother of the father of our country would have all sorts of quotes from her taking pride or pleasure in her son. We really don’t have any.

In fact, she was constantly critical of George for neglecting her. And Washington, we have quite a number of his letters to her. He always writes to her, and it’s very correct, rather frosty, tone. And you can just tell that he is suppressing this rage against his mother.

And I argue, it’s a kind of you know psychological speculation that he first learned to you know govern these powerful emotions in dealing with his mother because he was really never able to openly express the hostility that I think he felt for her.

LAMB: How long was she in his life?

CHERNOW: She was there a long time. In fact, she is still alive when he becomes the first president. And she dies, even though she had never gone to New York to visit him. In fact, she didn’t seem to have attended George and Martha’s wedding.

We have no evidence that even though she was living in Fredericksburg, we have no evidence that she ever went to visit George and Martha at Mount Vernon, which is very peculiar because George Washington was the most dutiful son and family man imaginable. And everyone loved Martha Washington. It’s really hard to imagine somebody having a bad relationship with Martha Washington who I think could get on anyone’s good side.

But there’s an episode I describe in the book related to the Revolutionary War. Washington gets a letter from the speaker of the Virginia Assembly saying, ”Dear General, there’s something going on here I think you should know. Your mother has been in the state capital you know lobbying for an emergency pension claiming that she is oppressed by taxes and also implying that she had been abandoned by her son.”

And Washington of course feels completely humiliated and immediately sits down and writes to his brother, ”Please go talk to mother. You know how much money I’ve given her, how much I’ve loaned her. Please get her to stop saying these things.” Well, that was really quite a public rebuke to have the commander-in-chief’s mother seeking poverty relief from the Virginia legislature. Quite a story.

LAMB: Did he have any close friends?

CHERNOW: That’s an excellent question because he had many friends, but I don’t think that he really had friends maybe in the sense that we think of it today. We think of a friend as someone whom we have a confessional relationship, where we really bear our souls. And Washington was a very wary person. And it took a long time to win his trust. He would only very slowly let down his guard.

So there are figures that he knows throughout his life. I mean, for instance, his friend Dr. James Craig, who was not only his friend by the family physician. Craig is there starting the French and Indian War. He’s there with Washington the moment that he dies.

So it wasn’t that Washington you know was a solitary figure at all. But it’s a very different kind of figure from the other founders in that way.

LAMB: Who did he – you know you take us through the different relationships he has with everybody from Madison to Jefferson you know Monroe, all the rest of them. But who did he have the most difficult relationship with of all the founders?

CHERNOW: I would have to say John Adams because even though John Adams was the first vice president when Washington was the first president, John Adams was rather conspicuously excluded from the inner council. Occasionally you will see letters pass between them on different issues.

But Adams starts out at the second Continental Congress, it’s really Adams who’s, in many ways, the most influential advocate of George Washington to be commander-in-chief. But then there’s a lot of sniping as the years go by.

And Adams, who is always worried about his place in history, is petrified that he’s going to be upstaged by two people, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. And he makes a very funny statement later on. He said, ”When the story of the Revolutionary War is written, it’ll be Benjamin Franklin striking the ground with his lightning rod and out sprang General George Washington, and there you have the whole thing in a nutshell.”

And he was not wrong, of course, that Washington and Franklin would receive this tremendous adulation.

I think that one important thing in terms of Washington’s relations with the other founders, he has much better relations with the founders of the previous generation – like Franklin, who must have been like 25 years older than Washington – has much better relations with those of younger generation – Madison and Hamilton who are about 20, 25 years younger, more difficult relations with his age peers – Adams is I think three years younger, Jefferson is about 12 years younger than Washington.

And this is true during the Revolutionary War, too, that Washington feels competitive with his age peers and, on some consciousness of conscious levels, feel threat whereas he has much better relations with both older and younger men.

LAMB: I did some of my own calculations, and picking near 1775, I found almost no one that was over 50 and some of these folks were in their late 20s, early 30s and taking on this whole revolution.

CHERNOW: It’s amazing. Alexander Hamilton becomes aide-de-camp to George Washington and very quickly chief of staff. He’s only 22 years old – by some people’s calculations only 20 years old. When Hamilton becomes the first treasury secretary and de facto prime minister of Washington’s first term, Hamilton is 34 years old.

This was a unique moment in history. Of course, the population is younger than they would be now, so you wouldn’t have a political system dominated by people in their 50s and 60s. This was also, Brian, it was a unique period of history where there was a tremendous need for youth and vitality and creativity. You had a war to fight and we had a constitution to write, then we had a government to create. These are things that required an enormous amount of energy and imagination.

And if people had that kind of creativity – and you see this in the careers of both Madison and Hamilton – they are very quickly drawn into politics and they rise very rapidly. Plus the need was there.

LAMB: All right, what was he? Was he a humble man, or was he a man that liked the big white horses leading him into the community? I remember reading here his request of the personal guards. They had to be a certain height and all that. Explain that story.

CHERNOW: You know this is a rather bizarre story. Washington decides to create a personal guard early in the Revolutionary War to guard him, also to guard his papers which he always lovingly tended.

OK, he tells his officers that the man he wants for this guard can’t be taller than 5’10” and shorter than 5’8”. This seems like a rather strange decision in the middle of the Revolutionary War when he’s always complaining about his shortage of manpower.

Then the following year, not satisfied with that, he issues a new set of orders that they can’t be taller than 5’10” or shorter than 5’9”. So he’s looking for almost a kind of Hollywood uniformity, a sort of band box precision for his personal guard.

And I point out repeatedly in the book that Washington set tremendous store by personal appearance. He thought that you know your personal appearance would just mark of your kind of inner order.

And so but again, he had grown up. He spent remember more than five years in the French and Indian War. He had been exposed to a lot of British generals that I guess had their you know with their followers and their staff. But it is rather strange that he did that.

LAMB: So what – you said that he went to every state after he became president.


LAMB: But that when he would go into the community, he had – I mean, what was the group that would precede him and they way he wanted to come into…

CHERNOW: Well, it’s very interesting because during his first term as president he decided that first he would visit all of the northern states and then he would visit all the southern states. He traveled from town to town by carriage. But what would happen was he would always bring along a white parade horse. And when he was a mile or two outside of town, he would dismount from the carriage. He would get on the white parade horse and enter town.

Why’d he do that? He had a great sense of showmanship. He knew that he looked great on horseback. It’s not coincidental that we have all these equestrian statues of George Washington. He had a theatrical sense.

But you know he’s a contradiction because on the other hand, he feels so burdened by his own celebrity. You know this same man who rides into town on a White Horse will then inform us in his diaries that, let’s say, the following morning in leaving he learns that a procession of dignitaries would accompany him out of town at 7 am and Washington would write in his diaries, ”I got up at 5 am and left before this escort could accompany me because I’m tired of all of these adulations and the receptions.” And he constantly had to make speeches and make nice with people.

And he was not – Washington had many virtues, but one virtue that he did not have was spontaneity. You know nowadays we think of a politician as somebody who can, on the spur of the moment, come up with a funny anecdote, a few well-chosen words.

George Washington was not like that. And it was a torment. To him, wherever he went, not only did people want to see him but that they wanted to lionize him. And he got very, very tired of it.

So you know whatever ambitions he had as a young man, and his ambitions were quite enormous as a young man, he had more than his fill as time went on. And then he began to feel oppressed the whole thing.

LAMB: When did you – how do I back into this question? When did you know almost nothing about Washington? In other words, when did your process of learning about him start, and when did you begin to change your perception?

CHERNOW: It was really – the Hamilton biography was the first 18th Century book that I did. And I can remember saying to people as I was writing the book that Hamilton is the protagonist of the book but Washington is the hero of the book.

I was very impressed by the way that all of the other founders became partisans for a particular cause. All of them get sidetracked into very petty, sometimes very vicious, personal disputes with each other.

George Washington is the one person who keeps his eye fixed on the goal. And that impressed me tremendously when I was writing the Hamilton book because Hamilton and Jefferson become consumed by this almost pathological you know hatred of each other. And then that leads to the formation of these two parties.

And here’s George Washington who’s always trying to rise above the fray, not unlike President Obama. He gets into office hoping to be a non-partisan president, hoping that there’ll be kind of very reasonable and civilized discourse and learns exactly what President Obama learned, that wasn’t going to happen.

LAMB: Money, taxes, you point out that his taxes were in arrears from ’85, ’86 and ’87.

CHERNOW: Yes. He actually was a scofflaw. I was quite shocked by that. One of the paradoxes of Washington, it’s commonly said he was one of the richest men – maybe the richest man in the colonies. Whether he was or he wasn’t, one thing that I’m certain is that he was land rich and he was certainly slave rich, but he was cash poor.

I discovered that he had to borrow money to go to his own inauguration in New York in 1789. At the end of his second term as president, he has to borrow money again to take his family and slaves back to Philadelphia. So this is a man who is constantly weighed down by concerns over money. It runs throughout his entire life.

And you know unfortunately, like a lot of the Virginia planters, he was not only constantly in debt but he was a real spend thrift. He was a compulsive shopper, George Washington.

LAMB: At the time he had the most land, how many acres did he own?

CHERNOW: Washington by the end had at least 40 or 50,000 acres. Mount Vernon, which actually consisted of five separate farms, was 8,000 acres. And I think that on top of that he had about 40 or 50,000 acres out west, which he was constantly trying to sell to pay off his debt.

This sounds like a lot, but at the time there were a lot of people who were amassing large amounts of land. And in fact, one of Washington’s grievances against the British Empire is that at the end of the French and Indian War, they banned settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains. And there were a lot of Virginians, like Washington, who were snapping up all of this land in western Virginia.

And they felt that the British Empire was suddenly thwarting their ambitions. And there was no ambition that burned more brightly in the breast of a true Virginian than land. Everything revolved around land at that time.

LAMB: We talked about health earlier, but the one thing that also popped up periodically of the health was the tumor that kept reoccurring. What was the tumor?

CHERNOW: Yes. Washington, during this first two years in office, twice almost died. The first time a tumor appeared on his left thigh and he began running a high fever. At the time it was thought it might be the cutaneous form of Anthrax. It probably was an infection that turned into a carbuncle.

But they feared for his life, that he found it very painful to sit. They actually reconfigured his coach so that he could lie down. And they cordoned off the street outside the executive mansion. They sprinkled it with straw so that there would not be any noise that bothered Washington.

And it did flare up again a couple of years later. And then there was an episode the following year where Washington had either flu or pleurisy but then develops in pneumonia. Again, he’s sick for several weeks. Everyone has written him off and then miraculously he survives.

So that was quite something in the first year or two of the new government.

LAMB: How much in those days did the public know about all these illnesses that he had?

CHERNOW: Well, the press kept a very discreet silence on both occasions and did not immediately say anything. Of course they knew that the executive mansion was cordoned off. I’m sure that there was a lot of gossip going around.

But the press didn’t reveal it until relatively late in the process. So at that point, the press was still protective of a politician’s privacy. But that would change very rapidly, not only change in our own time, changed very rapidly during Washington’s presidency.

LAMB: In the second hour of this two-part series we’re having, we’re going to talk more about things that are in the book. We’ve been talking about things in the book but I’m talking about the different eras. Leading up to that…


LAMB: …I went through and found a number of pages you devoted to each section. You started out with The Frontiersman. You devoted 88 pages to that. What was the purpose of calling that section The Frontiersman?

CHERNOW: Well, so much of Washington’s life was spent on the frontier, not only fighting in the French and Indian War but from the time he’s 15 or 16 he’s acting as surveyor in the frontier area. And Washington also has this vision from the time he’s a young man of America, what became America, expanding to the west.

And so I wanted to then draw the contrast to the second section that he becomes a planter and he’s living a much more gentile kind of life, at least inside the mansion at Mount Vernon. And I point out that this was somebody who shuttled very easily between the world of the backwoods and the world of the droyderems (ph). He was quite a versatile character.

LAMB: The biggest section is 267 pages devoted to the general.

CHERNOW: Right. Yes, well obviously the 8 ½ years as commander-in-chief you know have to be the center of it. But I really tried to do the whole life. Sometimes you read a life of Washington and it’s all the Revolutionary War. And I wanted to give full attention to both terms as president and the period is fascinating between the Revolutionary War and the time he becomes president.

There’s really not a dull period in his life.

LAMB: Why 83 pages to The Statesman?

CHERNOW: I guess because it was relatively brief. Again, you have to pity me here, Brian, I have 5-1/2 years of the French and Indian War to cover. I have 8-1/2 years of the Revolutionary War. I think I have four months of the Constitutional Convention, and then I have eight years of the two-term presidency.

So I’m kind of very aware that I have to do justice to those big chunks of the story. And I really can’t stint when it comes to those because those are the monumental achievements of his life. So I may have written the others somewhat more succinctly.

LAMB: Presidency gets 205 pages. The most – and we’ll continue this discussion – but the most interesting thing you learned about his presidency.

CHERNOW: The most interesting thing I learned about his presidency, well, sometimes it’s portrayed that George Washington somehow you know floated above the fray that he was a figurehead and that Hamilton was running it.

Not at all. I mean, Washington was absolutely on top of everything that was going on. Even Jefferson marveled at the way not only that everyone was reporting to Washington but Washington wanted to review all outgoing letters and Jefferson you know marveled at the way that Washington was aware of absolutely everything that was happening in the administration.

So he was a much more, much stronger president than I think people realized, and very creative. Remember, he’s forging the office of the presidency. He establishes a benchmark in terms of appointing people of brilliance and integrity. He’s really the one who’s defining the system of separation of powers and checks and balances.

And then most importantly, we’re still living with George Washington’s presidency. And what I mean by that is that Washington, unlike the framers of the constitution, Washington decides that the engine of foreign and domestic policy is going to be the presidency. It’s not going to be the Congress.

LAMB: Ron Chernow, author of the new book, ”Washington: A Life.” We’ll pick up from where we left off in our next hour.


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