George Washington 1789-1797

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Book: George Washington: A Life

Author: Ron Chernow

1. Date- Originally published in 2010, this is the most up to date book for anyone looking for a comprehensive biography. For a cradle to grave narrative there is no more contemporary volume available. One must take this into account because changing views on race and slavery are large characteristics in any person and are certainly a modern indictment on Washington. As time changes views of what is classified as humane this era gains in importance. Chernow keeps this in perspective however, too many modern blinders creates a harsh judgement in hindsight.

Grade: B+

2. Scope- This is a true cradle to grave book with due attention to pre and post presidency of George Washington. For those seeking to learn about the presidency itself, the book does a great job covering it, but as 8 years in a very full and complete life. This is not a presidential story or a book about the Revolutionary Era. It is about George Washington and his role in that time. The presidency is well documented and given center stage, no small task for such an accomplished individual. However. the post-presidency is lacking especially since an aged Washington was again named head of the military and spent much more time in retirement than the docile ending Chernow conveys.

Grade: A-

3. Author- Ron Chernow has written about the Revolutionary Period for decades. This book was written after the critically acclaimed biography of Alexander Hamilton. In Hamilton, Chernow received overwhelming praise for bringing stale characters to life. What is lacking is works from Chernow on the period and not the subjects themselves. For those looking for that type of approach to Washington will be disappointed. An interesting note about Chernow is the fact that he is currently working on a comprehensive biography on Ulysses S. Grant, one that promises to be a solid choice further down the line. His credibility on the era is solid, on biography it is of superior thread.

Grade: A

4. Length- Those attempting to complete the project at a rapid pace should steer clear of this book. It is dense, complete and thorough. At over 900 pages, this large volume takes time and commitment to give the book its proper due. For Washington, we are blessed with dozens and dozens of good choices that come in at a shorter length. This is a choice for those looking for a long and complete book that seemingly covers everything. The effort to turn this into a multi volume biography wouldn’t appear to be tough as each part within the book functions on its own. The book is way too dense, some may find the 900 pages are way too much of a good thing while oddly speeding from presidency to death.

Grade: B

5. Misson- Chernow’s mission was to break open the recently made available tomes of information and cast the figure in a new light. The immediate goal is to make Washington human, tear away the stoic and lifeless figure from history class into a living, breathing and yes, flawed hero who became the first President. He celebrates in his successes and buries him for his shortcomings. It is all done with care and fairness which makes the mission even more accomplished. Gigantic figures like Washington need this type of book every few years, because their relevance remains crucial to modern America. Chernow hits it out of the park.

Grade: A

The Project

The Presidents Project is an ongoing mission to read a substantial biography about each U.S. President. The rules and guidelines are simple. Read one biography about each President in order. The project began as a student at Elon University. The original premise was to check out the best book available in the University Library. After graduating in May 2011 the project expanded to attempting to find the best book written and purchase it.

This is a blog created to provide a roadmap to those attempting a similar project. I do not have a favorite president. I do not even pretend to be able to rank them in any specific way.

Presidents are like sports. Over the course of a season, teams rarely win over two thirds (.667) of their games. Just as rare is an abysmal season winning below (.333). Incredibly, whether the season is 16 games or 162, the vast majority fight for the middle third. Since Washington, presidents have rarely failed in a way that they are truly awful and have rarely succeeded to the point of greatness.

For each president I have examined the book based on my criteria. I also seek to fairly and honestly address how I feel about the president before and after reading about them.

Books were selected based on the following criteria:

1. Date published- Early books were selected written by contemporary authors or without sufficient hindsight. The result was a biased or outdated perspective on the man and his significance in American history. Whenever possible the most recent biography was given consideration. Obviously hindsight becomes an extraordinary challenge as history blends into current events but eulogy of Franklin Pierce wasn’t given much thought.

2. Scope- The ideal book contained extensive coverage of the presidency. However, a secondary and sometimes defining characteristic was the coverage of the pre- and post-presidency of the man. My Senior Thesis examined the lack of political science research on the power of a former president and the role he continued to play on the world stage. Books were also given special consideration if they examined the rise to power and how it influenced decisions made while president. I didn’t fault books for ending after the subject was assassinated. That is unduly harsh.

3. Author- Whether from a partisan angle or an attempt at revisionist history, the author was always considered before making a decision. Journalists or pundits many times were deal breakers as historians were given top priority. Memoirs or other attempts at autobiography were not considered.

4. Length- The original project attempted to select the best short biography. Then, when reaching presidents that did not have these available, long biographies were then considered. Many times short biographies are fantastic but cannot possibly address the goals listed above. On the other hand, books that are burdened by long, irrelevant passages lessen the significance of the message.

5. Mission- Finally, I seek to find a book that is most aligned with the goals of the project. Ironically, the most well-known presidents struggle to conform to the mission of a straight biography. Understandably the mission of an author often becomes offering something new worth writing about. For example, was Lincoln gay? Did FDR know about Pearl Harbor? As the son of the greatest conspiracy theorist known to man (Did Monica Lewinsky kill JFK?!!?) I am not a fan of hit jobs or vendettas.

That is it. Feel free to comment or absolutely steal my idea or books from this list. That is the point of writing this blog. Enjoy!