Tuesday, May 25, 2004

George Washington: A Life

by Willard Sterne Randall

So begins my latest reading plan: To read my way through U. S. history by reading biographies of the country's presidents. The idea had its genesis years ago when I read Star-Spangled Men. As I read the presidential biographies it contained, I also enjoyed reading about unfamiliar eras of history. More recently, when I was reading The Hellfire Rebellion, I remembered this plan and since I was finishing up my perusal of the Time Wars series, I figured I should finally embark on this long inactive plan. (I know, it's not very politically correct to go reading up on rich white guys, but I've already read Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States. Besides, rich white guys are people as well and their biographies are more easily obtained.) So anyway, I have started with the big kahuna himself, the father of our country, George Washington. When I picked up this book, I didn't know whether to expect a paean to an American demigod or an expose on the shortcomings of the rich and famous. Mr. Randall did a good job of keeping the middle ground. I really got a good impression of Washington as a human being, not just some guy who sprung from the Earth full grown in military uniform and spent all his time chopping down cherry trees and posing for paintings.

My first reaction to the book, as Mr. Randall started recounting George Washington's ancestry, was "Gee, maybe I should have started with some British or colonial history." Of course, following that road would just keep sending me back further and further back to the history of ancient Egypt. So I stuck to my guns and let Mr. Randall guide me through Washington's ancestry and life. Since I was never much interested in the colonial era, it was a voyage of discovery for me. Washington was presented as a real man, doing things like learning a trade, struggling with financial matters and dancing with the ladies. And despite his presented shortcomings, Washington also came across as a noble man. I think I would vote for him without hesitation. Not something I often do. Regarding the milieu of his life, I also enjoyed learning more about the history of the mideastern states. I was a bit surprised, having my preconceptions shattered as I read of the vast wilderness of western Virginia and the Ohio Valley. It blew my mind to think that Washington saw the site of Pittsburgh--always a big industrial city in  my mind--back when it was simply a river junction out in the woods.

But as much as reading George Washington: A Life was a voyage of discovery, it also was a voyage of contemplation. As I was reading about Washington's life and times and the birth of my country, my thoughts were pulled to consider how they compared with our world today. I already alluded to the point that Washington comes across as far more noble than today's politicians. (And there is no doubt that Washington, too, was a politician.) It was also surprising that modern America seemed a lot more like the Great Britain of that era than its nascent self. As our modern government seeks to exercise more control over its people and other countries, I hope some our leaders learn the lesson of history. Britain's attempt to manage her colonies led to their exploitation and treatment of the colonists as second class citizens. In turn, that led those colonists to revolt and break away from their mother country. The founding fathers set a dangerous example and a good warning for our generation.

All in all, I found George Washington: A Life to be quite enjoyable and informative. Mr. Randall does an excellent job of cataloguing Washington's life, though the material on his military career during the Revolution and the French and Indian War is slightly more predominate. The only drawback from my perspective is that he didn't give a full account of the events happening outside of Washington's direct experience. But it isn't a general history book, after all. Besides, I'll be getting more of that as I read the biographies of Adams, Jefferson and the rest. I'll probably be sick of the Revolution by the time I get to Madison. Anyway, if I ever attempt to amass a collection of U.S. history books, I'll be sure to put George Washington: A Life on my shelf.

LibraryThing link

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