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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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