He really did have trouble with his teeth, but everything else most of us know about George Washington will need some readjustment now that Ron Chernow has produced his splendidly detailed biography of the first president of the United States.
Decades and hundreds of pages pass before the dashing young military prodigy of the French and Indian War turns into the resolute general, and then, finally, the wise, unflappable leader of the nation.
Along the way, we meet his unhinged mother, his generous wife, friends, retainers, villains -- and some of the smartest men who ever breathed free air.
We spoke over lunch at Bloomberg’s world headquarters in New York.
Hoelterhoff: That’s an eye-catching cover of the 6-foot- tall Washington on his handsome mount. It was interesting to read how much thought he put into ordering up the right kind of socks and vests from England.
Chernow: If he approached a town by carriage, he would get out of the coach and get up on a white horse -- he would always bring along one or two white parade horses -- because he knew that he looked terrific on a white horse.
During the Revolutionary War, he was so concerned with appearance that he decided to establish a personal guard, and wrote to his officers that the people in this guard should not be shorter than 5’8” or taller than 5’10.” A year later, he sent out a follow-up letter in which he says the guard should not be shorter than 5’9” or taller than 5’10” -- so he has actually narrowed it.
Hoelterhoff: Without Washington the war would not have been won, is that it?
Chernow: I don’t think so. Okay, Washington’s not perfect and he’s really rather middling as a battlefield leader.
But take him out of the picture, and then take any of the other characters in this book and put them in Washington’s place.
We don’t win. There’s not another figure of that strength of personality and character.
His political skills were extraordinary and he had the ability to hold the army together. The army was the closest we had to a nation in many ways, because otherwise there were just 13 squabbling states.
Hoelterhoff: Throughout a rather busy life, he writes poised letters, though one really stands out, given his complex feelings about slavery.
Chernow: At the very beginning of the Revolutionary War, he receives an ode in his honor from Phillis Wheatley, then the most famous black person -- she was still a slave and a published poet.
Washington sits down when he receives this ode, writes her a beautiful letter, which at one time he would only have written to a duchess. He invites her to come and visit him at headquarters, which apparently she did.
Hoelterhoff: The story of his life is also the story of his marriage.
Chernow: They made the most extraordinary sacrifices of their private life....MORE