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Book: "Washington, A Life" by Ron Chernow

Podcast: American History Tellers, Season 5, Revolution

If you have been following my blog series on American History: President x President, you are aware that I have been wondering, how did we get from the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution to where we are today? How have our political parties evolved into a torrent of conflict and violence? How has our country become so divided? Or, I wonder--4 presidential biographies and 2 detours into my passion project--have I been naive in viewing the birth of our nation in a romantic hue? Do I need to come to terms with the fact that little has changed over the last two-and-a-half centuries? 

Is the answer to my questions as simple as, people remain the same and the only change from the days of our founding fathers and mothers is the current ease of disseminating information, the narrowing of the wide-reaching world, the unchecked availability of automatic weapons? Have people always been angered by those they disagree with but instead of throwing tea into a harbor they now phish and create ransomware and malvertise? And worse, they kill the innocent and defenseless in churches and schools, and at festivals and rallies?

To unravel the past with the present, I begin with #1. 

Washington was a unique president not only that he was our first, but he essentially took office with a blank slate and with no political party opposition. This soon changed. 

The Federalists were the first political party and were made up of people with mostly democratic ideas of a strong centralized government, like Washington and John Adams (#2). Alexander Hamilton is included in this list but while he favored democratic ideas he also wanted a monarchy. The Federalists believed in government intervention to keep the states aligned. They were anti-slavery and pro-British. They believed the federal government should raise taxes and pay state's debts for the cost of the American Revolution. On the other side were the Anti-Federalists, who would later become the Democratic Republicans, who would then become the Jeffersonian Republicans, which would eventially morph into the Democratic Party as we know it today. They were pro-French, pro-slavery and believed in a loose federation of states unimpeded by a federal government.

Washington was most insecure about his lack of education and compensated by being over-formal and often silent. He didn't speak much since he felt he lacked the requisite education to add to the conversation, and he was mortified by the appearance of his teeth. His teeth gave him a lifetime of suffering. He would purchase teeth (sometimes from slaves) and have them fitted into his mouth. They often came loose or fell out. For this reason, he was a man of few words and smiles. Have you ever seen a portrait of Washington with his mouth open? The answer is not one he sanctioned as he would only allow himself to be painted with his mouth closed. His teeth were not wooden. Either the material to make them was brown, or they were stained. 

He battled health issues his entire life, as well as a strong yearning to live a quiet life as a farmer on Mount Vernon. A yearning that was constantly usurped by his calls to duty. He was a surveyor, a soldier, the commander of the continential army, the president of the congressional congress that wrote the U.S. Constitution, and first president of the United States. He yearned to step down as First Father after four years, but James Madison (#4) and a host of others talked him into staying another term. There were no term limits then, and while he enjoyed his first term with little party opposition, Thomas Jefferson (#3) and Madison forged an oppositional party that would soon doom the Federalists. Washington declined a third term, but still he was never destined to be a gentleman farmer. After he retired in 1797, Adams (#2) asked him to to command the army again (war never happened). Washington spent his retirement chronicling and cataloging his letters and battling poor health. He died a few days before the turn of the century.

As the father of our country, it is fitting he never had children of his own. He adopted Martha's children, John and Patsy, and acted as surrogate father or grandfather to others. He was a good parent to them, and Martha was a loyal and patient wife and mother. I will write more about Martha (#1FL), along with Abigail (#2FL) and Dolley (#4FL) another time.

The biggest disappointment for me regarding Washington was his stance (non-stance?) on slavery. As supported by Washington's letters, Chernow presents Washington as if he opposed slavery but our first president made no outward move during his lifetime to end slavery at Mount Vernon or in the country. The irony of slaves helping to build the capitol in D.C. is not to be overlooked or underestimated. Washington had a marvelous opportunity to end slavery seventy years before the start of the Civil War, as did other founding fathers. The fact that he (and most of the other framers) made no attempts to do so is a tremendous disappointment. His will did provide for the freedom of 120 slaves upon his death, excluding dower slaves (slaves and their descendants owned by Martha pre-marriage). One year after his death, Martha signed an order that freed these slaves. 

I complimented Chernow's book with the American History Tellers podcast on the American Revolution. This is the second season of an AHT podcast I have listened to. (The first one was on Andrew Jackson (#6)). The Revolution podcast presents the war from five points of view: a young General Washington, the British Under Secretary of State, an Iroquois leader named Corn Planter, a woman who fought for her independence, a free black man, and Abraham Yates, a cobbler turned populist senator. Lindsay Graham hosts (not that Lindsey Graham) and does a marvelous job of presenting a production that is theatrical and informative and never boring or melodramatic. 

As I endeavor to become better educated on our presidents and the history of our country, "Washington, A Life" was a perfect start to begin to unfold the origami of my quest to reconcile the past with the present. We do not need to guess how Washington would feel about our current events, as evidenced by his prescient farewell letter:

"The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism...

"...It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another."

There is still time for us to listen.

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joanne lewis

When Joanne Lewis is not practicing law, she is writing. She pens murder mysteries, historical fiction and historical fantasy books and is the author of several award-winning novels. As an author, she hopes to entertain, to educate, and perhaps to enlighten. As an attorney, she is most proud of her work as an assistant state attorney and as a guardian ad litem representing the best interests of children.

Her books are available on Kindle, as paperbacks, and as audio books.

Her latest release is Bee King, a historical novel that is about the first person in the United States diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, and takes place from the start of the Civil War until 1910. Just like the people who inhabited Five Points in lower Manhattan during the 1800s and the turn of the century, Bee King traverses the pentagonal streets where abolitionists battled copperheads, immigrants clashed among social, religious and political strife, and doctors and psychologists strained to help patients. Told in Five Points (sections), Bee King is dramatized through conventional literary devices as well as through newspaper articles, a manifesto, and other non-traditional tools.

The Forbidden trilogy consists of the novels: Forbidden Room, Forbidden Night, and Forbidden Horses. Forbidden Room is her best-selling novel.

In Forbidden Room, the first book in the Forbidden trilogy, new attorney Michael Tucker has few clients, yearns to be like his famous grandmother and cannot afford to move out of his parents' home. Sara Goldstein is an heiress accused of killing her uncle. When Sara hires Michael, he gets the chance to defend an innocent person, a beautiful lover and notoriety like his grandmother. But is it more than he asked for? Is Sara innocent or is she a murderer?

Forbidden Night, the second book in the Forbidden trilogy, delves further into Michael and Sara’s complicated relationship, as well as into Soldier Boy’s psyche, into their family histories, and into the creation of the carousel horses. The question posed in Forbidden Room, the first book of the Forbidden trilogy—Is Sara innocent or is she a murderer—is answered.

Forbidden Horses, the final book in the Forbidden trilogy, travels to the eighteenth century and takes place in Austria to reveal the troubled history of the creation of the carousel horses.

Michelangelo & Me is a series of five novellas in the genre of historical fantasy.

In the first book of the series, Michelangelo & the Morgue, seventeen-year-old Michelangelo defies religious and political powers in order to capture a serial killer who is murdering the artists of Florence. In Sleeping Cupid, the second book, Michelangelo’s believed-to-be lost statue narrates his journey from fifteenth century Florence, Italy until the present day where he lives in an attic in a sleepy Florida town. Future books in the anthology include Space Between, School of the World and Michelangelo & Me.

The Lantern is a historical novel about a modern-day woman's search to find a girl from 15th century Florence, Italy who dared to enter the competition to build the lantern on top of Brunelleschi's dome. Across time and space, three lives collide as they battle abuse, disease, fear and prejudice in pursuit of their dreams. Along the way, they intersect with some of the most famous figures of the Renaissance including members of the Medici, Filippo Brunelleschi, Donatello and a young Michelangelo.

Wicked Good, a different kind of love story, begins in Bangor, Maine. Fifteen-year-old Rory is not defined by his diagnoses of Asperger's syndrome and Bipolar Disorder and lives life to the fullest. Archer, his adoptive mother, is Rory's biggest fan. Rory searches for his birth parents to find out why he is the way he is. He discovers his roots in Salem, Massachusetts where the Salem Witch Trials had occurred, and in Gloucester, Massachusetts where fishermen went down with the Andrea Gail during the Perfect Storm. He also learns his true roots are closest to his home in Bangor. As Rory discovers truths about himself, Archer learns about herself too.

Make Your Own Luck is the unforgettable and moving novel of Remy Summer Woods, a young attorney who refuses to believe thirteen-year-old Bonita Pickney killed her father, Patrick Pickney. Remy risks her relationship with her own father as well as her life to prove Bonita's innocence. Along with learning what happened the night Patrick was murdered, Remy discovers hard truths about her family and herself.

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