Biographer Ron Chernow

Prize-winning biographer, author of Washington: A Life, explains why he dares to say that, today, we know more about George Washington than Martha did.

Fortune magazine dubbed Ron Chernow "America's best business biographer." The prize-winning and best-selling author's subjects include the Warburg banking family, John D. Rockefeller and Alexander Hamilton, and, in his latest, he provides a portrait of America's first president, George Washington. Chernow is also a frequent contributor to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and former president of the writers' organization, PEN American Center. He's a native of Brooklyn, NY and a graduate of Yale and Cambridge.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Ron Chernow is an acclaimed author and biographer whose many notable books include “The House of Morgan” and biographies of Alexander Hamilton and John D. Rockefeller. His latest is an in-depth look at our first president, George Washington. The book is called, “Washington: A Life.” What an honor, sir, to have you on this program.
Ron Chernow: Pleasure to be here, Tavis, thank you.
Tavis: Oh, I’m honored to have you. Let me start with the obvious, and this is a pretty dense text, as the audience can see. So there is obviously more about Washington that we need to wrestle with, because one would think that everything has been said about this guy, everything’s been written about this guy.
Chernow: Well, Tavis, I think that the starting point of any biography is the sense that there have been significant dimensions of the subject’s life that for one reason or another have been overlooked by previous biographers, and I had that sort of revelation when I was doing my previous biography on Alexander Hamilton that late in the Revolutionary War he has a quarrel with Washington.
He then sits down in anger and he writes a letter describing Washington as very moody, irritable, temperamental. He said, “For once, the great man shall repent of his ill humor,” and I could remember sitting there stunned, saying, “Ill humor?” It was very hard to square that with the image, the saintly founder of the country.
So it led me to believe that perhaps I could create a fresh portrait. Indeed, I spent six years doing this and I discovered a Washington who was passionate, complex, a sensitive man of many moods and very fiery opinions, but all under this tremendous cloak of reserve, this very stoical façade that we know much better than that inner reality.
Tavis: I’m a struck, Ron, by persons of your level of genius who decide that there’s enough here, and that there’s something worth our, again, wrestling with, that you decide to spend six years of your life – that’s six years you can’t get back. So at the end, it had better been worth it. But why devote that much time to this?
Chernow: Well, there’s a new edition of Washington’s papers that’s been published since 1969 – every year, another volume or two comes out – to give you some idea of how much more we know about George Washington, the new edition is based on 135,000 documents. The old one was based on 17,000 documents.
We know more about George Washington now than his own contemporaries. I daresay we know more about George Washington than Martha did. (Laughter)
Tavis: Ba-dum-bump. (Laughter) One of the things that we know now, thanks to these new papers, and you do not, to your credit, shy away from it, is Washington and his owning of hundreds of slaves.
Chernow: Well, in generations past the biographies of Washington made it seem like the fact that he owned 300 human beings was somehow kind of a trivial, inconsequential part of his life. It’s an extraordinary story and I really tried to do the most detailed portrait yet in a biography of Washington as a slaveholder.
He’s born into a Virginia society where slavery is both commonplace and unquestioned, and by the end of his life he actually becomes the first founder to free his slaves. But what I wanted to do in this book, Tavis, is really to take a kind of cold and searching look at what is always said about George Washington – that he was a benevolent slave master – and kind of look at what that meant.
Because on the one hand he took very good medical care of his slaves – well, you could say they were his property he was preserving. Importantly, he recognized slave marriages and families. All the records at Mount Vernon list the slaves by marriages and families. A lot of slaveholders didn’t recognize that.
On the other hand, I was very struck one day; I was reading a series of diary entries from 1785. Washington is back from the war, he writes in his diary that this was the coldest winter on record in Virginia. He writes that it’s so cold that it was too cold for him to go out riding, and he was an extremely rugged character.
Yet he’s checking in with the five overseers at his five farms to make sure that all of his slaves are out in the field, and they’re doing brutal manual labor. They’re draining swamps, they’re digging up tree stumps, and Washington could never get beyond this idea – or I can’t say never; for a long time couldn’t get beyond the idea that he was giving them food and board and he wanted a full day’s work in return.
The thing I loved about Washington in these, he’s someone who’s capable of constant growth and self-criticism. Then he’s the only founder who ends up freeing his slaves.
Tavis: He’s obviously a complex character to be sure, but that phrase, “benevolent slaveholder,” is oxymoronic for a whole lot of people. How did he square those two things?
Chernow: Well, you know what happens; I think that he doesn’t really question slavery up until the Revolutionary War. Most people don’t know 5 percent of the continental army were African Americans, a very important part. There was an all-Black battalion from Rhode Island and then from Massachusetts, and he’s surrounded by very idealistic young aides – the Marquis de Lafayette, Alexander Hamilton and others who are abolitionist – and Lafayette keeps after him.
Lafayette writes to him after the war and says, “My dear General, I would never have lifted a sword in the cause of liberty if I thought that in doing so I was founding a land of slavery.”
So I think you can see when he first becomes commander-in-chief of the continental army he’s not only disdainful of the Blacks, he’s sort of disdainful of all the militiamen as rabble. But you could see that this very patrician Virginia planter grows tremendously as a human being.
In fact, even during the first year of the war he receives an ode from Phyllis Wheatley, who was a slave who was also a very famous poet.
Tavis: The first published Black poet, yeah.
Chernow: He sits down and he writes her a magnificent letter thanking her for this ode to him and saying, “If you’re ever in the vicinity of headquarters, please stop by and see me.”
As I say in the book, this is the sort of letter that a year or two earlier George Washington would only have written to a duchess, and suddenly he’s writing that to a slave.
Tavis: There are two things you’ve said now, Ron, I want to go back and pick up, because it goes to the heart of what I love about the way you give treatment to the subject, because as the title suggests, “Washington: A Life,” you’re into who he was as a man, his persona and all the complexity therein.
There are two things you said that make me want to go back. One is when you said that what you liked about Washington is he had the ability to grow, the capacity to change, as you well know, in our modern day politics that will get you killed.
Whatever horse you’re on – no pun intended – you’d better ride that, because if you start to shift or change, even in the name of growth and greater understanding, you get killed on the campaign trail for being for it before you were against it.
Chernow: Right, no, absolutely, and I think the reason that people were willing to entrust so much power to Washington was because they felt confident that he would not abuse it.
The founding generation, Tavis, there’s a big misunderstanding. They were brilliant but they were opinionated, they were argumentative, they didn’t agree on anything, and bequeathed to us a very rich set of debates, not as sometimes thought, I think, by the Tea Party people, that they’ve given us a set of answers. They really gave us a set of questions, and all of these things were still being debated.
But I think if George Washington came back today there are certain things about contemporary politics that he would find depressingly familiar – the fact that it’s so partisan, so nasty. He went through that himself. On the other hand, I think that what would depress him, aside from the much lower caliber of people that we often have in public life, is the kind of politics of focus groups and pollsters, lobbyists and political action committees.
Because when George Washington was making a decision he really only consulted two things. He consulted the national interest and he consulted his own political passions and principles. There was never a sense of putting a finger in the air and testing the wind.
Tavis: To your point about contemporary politics, President Obama, of course our current president, went into politics, or certainly ran for office – and I’m taking a point that you’ve made, I want to get you to unpack this – you’ve made the point that Obama, of course, went into politics in Washington saying he wanted to change the game. He ran for president saying he wanted to change the way that Washington works.
Washington did the same thing and later in his life he was very disappointed. He kind of walked away from it. So compare the two men in terms of -
Tavis: Yeah, I think if President Obama had read a good biography of George Washington he might have avoided that mistake, because I think that what happens is that when you have fundamental disagreements in the society that you’re going to get this highly partisan atmosphere.
Actually, a lot of the issues are the same in the 1790s as we’re dealing with now – states’ rights versus federal power, executive power versus legislative power, liberal interpretation of the Constitution versus strict -
Tavis: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Chernow: – versus strict construction, exactly. I think that I should say Washington would be very happy to see a biracial president, because when he freed his slaves, instead of – he was not one of those founders who said we should free the slaves and send them back to Africa. He actually provided in his will for education and training for those young slaves who were going to be freed and then would have to operate in a society.
So I think he would be very happy to see Obama as president. I think that actually, Obama as president is a very thorough and disciplined and methodical president that Washington was. Of course, Washington was not a glad-handing, back-slapping politician. In the 18th century you didn’t run for office. Your friends would lobby for you.
Washington did not have Obama’s oratorical gifts. On the other hand, Washington had a very, very powerful image of America’s future as a strong, prosperous, a just and honorable nation, and Washington, having been commander-in-chief of the continental army for eight and a half years, Washington had that kind of mystic bond with the people that I think that Obama has been struggling to try to obtain.
Tavis: What was his, as president, his demeanor, his temperament?
Chernow: Well, Hamilton said of Washington that he consulted much, he pondered much, he resolved slowly, he resolved surely. Washington was not a quick and spontaneous person. He thought everything through at great length. For that reason he made very few mistakes. Washington said, “Much is to be gained by prudence, much by conciliation, much by firmness,” a very nuanced view of the presidency.
But he really forged the office of the presidency as we know it. We take for granted the fact that the president initiates policy. That wasn’t the way that they saw it in Philadelphia in 1787. They thought Congress was going to be the preeminent branch, which is why Article I of the Constitution is about Congress.
It was really George Washington who saw that the three branches of government, one of them would be the engine of government, and the one that would be able to provide the focus and the dynamism was really the executive branch.
Tavis: Here again, though, I’m struck by these parallels in the book between Washington then and our politics now. You take too much time making a decision, you’re not called thoughtful and deliberative; you’re called out of touch and slow and uncertain. I’m just amazed at the parallels here.
Chernow: Yeah, no, there was no 24-hour news cycle, and Washington could not have functioned in that. In fact, Washington had a big problem as a general because he had this methodical nature. He would come up with very beautiful, intricate battle plans, Tavis, but then, of course, in the heat of battle the plans always -
Tavis: (Unintelligible)
Chernow: – fall apart. He was not able to improvise in that way. George Washington would not have been able to go out on the campaign trail and just spontaneously banter with voters. He didn’t have to do press conferences; he didn’t have to do interviews with the press.
So he was able to retain not only his principles intact, but a kind of innate dignity that would be very difficult for a president now. On the other hand, I have to stress that for the first year or two of his first term he was a political untouchable because he was George Washington.
But then the opposition press began to vilify him, and the charges ranged from that he was plotting to restore the monarchy to even that he had been a double agent – he’d been a British agent during the Revolutionary War. Preposterous, cruel, nonsensical things were said about Washington, and by the time he left after two terms he was, I think, not only very tired and beleaguered, but I think in certain ways very embittered by the experience. He was someone who was earnestly always trying to do the right thing.
Tavis: My time with Ron Chernow is up for now. I’m going to invite you to go to our website, though, at PBS.org, and I want to ask Ron a question that we can get more into on the website; specifically, a question about an article he wrote recently about the Tea Party and the Tea Party’s wanting to call down and to rally around these notions that they believe the Founding Fathers put forth.
So part of this contemporary, modern-day Tea movement is trying to tie itself to the Founding Fathers, so I want to get Ron’s thoughts on that strategy relative to a piece that he wrote just days ago here.
For now, though, my honor to have Ron Chernow on this program. The book is called “Washington: A Life.” Ron, good to have you here and thanks for the book.
Chernow: Pleasure, Tavis.
Tavis: It’s my pleasure.

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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm