A Life

Washington: A Life


A gripping portrait of the first president of the United States from the author of Alexander Hamilton, the New York Times bestselling biography that inspired the musical.Celebrated biographer Ron Chernow provides a richly nuanced portrait of the father of our nation and the first president of the United States. With a breadth and depth matched by no other one volume biography of George Washington, this crisply paced narrative carries the reader through his adventurous early years, his heroic …

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How was President Washington perceived by the end of his term?(r/AskHistorians)

I’m a diplomat, not a historian, but I have a deep interest in our founding fathers. Please allow me to answer this in moderate depth, as I’m on mobile and away from any sources. Public opinion, for the most part, was very high throughout his professional career. For starters, let me relay a well-worn quote from when he died:

> First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in humble and enduring scenes of private life. Pious, just, humane, temperate, and sincere; uniform, dignified, and commanding; his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting. . . . Correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence and virtue always felt his fostering hand. The purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues. . . . Such was the man for whom our nation mourns. Henry Lee, father of Robert E. Lee

Now let’s back up. Washington was a man bathed in mythos almost from the beginning. While fighting for the British, his commander General Braddock was killed. Washington took over and led the fight, during which he had two horses shot from under him and four bullet holes pierced his coat. This created an undeniable air of bravery. He soon became unhappy with the British military because they resisted paying him or promoting him properly due to being a colonist. Had this not happened, perhaps history would be different.

His integrity was never questioned, even by his opponents. When he was nominated to be the commander in chief of the American forces against the British, he wasn’t the only candidate but he was the most popular. He made blunders in the Revolutionary War that attracted criticism. His approach was mostly to keep the military together for as long as possible (his hardest challenge of his life) and draw out the war. This isn’t exactly a sexy approach for a nation wanting to strike at the British. Through sheer will and presence and force of character, he held the military together.

He also either had the great skill or the great luck of surrounding himself with talent. These included, most famously and effectively, Henry Knox, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Jefferson. To get to the meat of your question, these men all admired Washington’s ability to lead. However, Jefferson thought that Washington was too influenced by Hamilton and that Hamilton had “duped” him.

The public generally adored him. After he retired, travelers would stop by his house just to see him. His location often made it necessary for him to host them overnight, at his own expense (Washington spent his life in great debt, though he was extremely “land rich”). He was revered as the father of his country before the US was even recognized as a sovereign country by much of the world.

To get at your last part: how good of a politician was he? Well, he didn’t need to be a good one to become president. He didn’t run for office in the way that all the other presidents have. He was a reluctant president but a unanimous choice. He had hoped to retire to his farm with his wife; the war took a lot out of him and he deeply loved his home. When King George III heard he would step down as commander in chief instead of appointing himself ruler, he stated, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” That said, he did have a flair for political presentation. He was a tall man and a great horseman. He was said to grab his horse by the mane when it fell in a river and yanked it back to prevent it from falling. He timed battles or parades or speeches for optimal political impact.

His legend wore somewhat, and during his second term, he was often attacked in the papers. They called into question his motives, his war record, his policy record, and his advisors. He at times expressed regret in agreeing to be president. Many of these attacks came from Thomas Jefferson. I wish I could tell you more about this time period, but I’m short on time and focusing on the gist of your question since you asked about how he was “generally” perceived. When his second term ended, he stepped down freely and voluntarily, creating a tradition that was followed for over 100 years until FDR (whereafter the two term limit was mandated as law).

In summary, he wasn’t perfect. He failed as a farmer repeatedly. He was insecure about his teeth to the point that he had a private dentist sworn to secrecy. He often was guilt-tripped or embarrassed by his own mother. He was a sometimes harsh slave master, though this is somewhat mitigated by his hatred for slavery (driven as much by economics as morality, if not more). He made mistakes like all men. He lost more battles than he won. But he was always well-respected, even by his rivals.

Main source: Washington: A Life. One of my favorite biographies.

Some of what I said undoubtedly filtered in from exhibits/videos at Mount Vernon (visit if you’re ever in DC) or the history channel documentary The Presidents, which I also recommend.

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Ron Chernow

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Penguin Books

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Washington: A Life

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How was President Washington perceived by the end of his term?

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