American history, biographies, book reviews, George Washington, presidential biographies, Presidents, Pulitzer Prize, Ron Chernow
“Washington: A Life” is acclaimed author and historian Ron Chernow’s most recent book, for which he received a 2011 Pulitzer Prize. He has also written biographies on John D. Rockefeller, Sr. and Alexander Hamilton and is particularly well-known for his inaugural book “The House of Morgan.”
This is the longest single-volume biography on Washington in my library and is the second best-read among major available titles. Because this biography clocks in at three times the length of Ellis’s “His Excellency,” it is no surprise that Chernow’s work loses a few readers to that of Elllis (which I recently read and reviewed). However, among all biographies of George Washington, Chernow’s appears to be the best loved and most highly-rated.
Having plowed through 2,100 pages on Washington in the previous three weeks, the prospect of biting off another 800+ pages so soon with Chernow’s biography was a bit daunting. However, my fears were soon eased as I realized I was probably reading the best biography of George Washington.
Compellingly written in a fluid, articulate and descriptive style, Chernow’s book perfectly demonstrates his masterful storytelling skills. I did not notice much new information about Washington’s life or character, but Chernow’s style of writing, the book’s nearly perfect pace and the conclusions he provides toward the end of the biography complement the enormous volume of previously-published works on Washington.
What I particularly liked was Chernow’s manner of narrating which almost made it seem this was the first time I’d read about Washington…despite this being my third cradle-to-grave sojourn through Washington’s life. Although it was difficult to avoid constantly drawing comparisons to the other biographies on Washington I’d just read, the outcome was, more often than not, favorable to Chernow.
In only two areas did I feel a slight preference for Flexner’s earlier, more lengthy work. First, at about a thousand pages more weighty than “Washington: A Life,” Flexner’s four-volume series often provided more detail than Chernow could afford. Some of that detail, in hindsight, was helpful in forming a more robust, complete image of Washington and putting the reader fully inside Washington’s head, particularly relating to his closest personal relationships.
Second, Flexner organized his narrative in a more rigorously chronological fashion. Where Chernow’s work seemed more thematically-oriented with a less-strict adherence to timeline, I was able to follow simultaneous story lines more easily with Flexner – and often with more historical context.
To its great credit, however, I found within “Washington: A Life” so many perceptive, insightful or deeply clever observations that before many pages had passed, I re-started the book from the beginning…this time with a commitment to chronicling those passages which were particularly memorable or well-conceived. I ended up with a collection of nearly two hundred of these special items to savor.
My perspective reduced to a single point, Chernow has struck the perfect balance with this biography between the much lengthier (though more descriptive) work by James Thomas Flexner and the solid, but too-brief, biography “His Excellency: George Washington” by Joseph Ellis.
If I were forced to “save” for posterity just one work on Washington, out of a reverence for the classics I might defer to the multi-volume work of James Thomas Flexner. But if I had to recommend just one biography of Washington to a friend who hungered for an exceedingly well-written, insightful and astonishingly enjoyable presidential biography, I would enthusiastically recommend “Washington: A Life” by Ron Chernow.
Overall Rating: 5 stars
I agree with your assessment of this book.. a great read.
Great Review and thanks for following my blog. Jen
Rick Bretz said:
I have read both biographies on Washington and liked them both as much. For someone so important to American history, Washington is most likely the most misunderstood of our Presidents. These two books find a way to make him more accessible Excellent review. Rick Bretz
I was wondering about Chernow’s work….I know other journalists turned historians have done well, ie Evan Thomas and Walter Isaacson.
I’m 200 pages through myself, and think it’s wonderful. My grandfather recommended it to me, along with a few other volumes from his Washington collection.
So far, this has probably been my favorite presidential biography of the thirty I’ve read. I can’t wait to hear what you think after you’re done!
High praise! I’ll be sure to check in!
This was a great biography. I too am on a quest to read through the Presidents. I will not be quite so comprehensive, but I look forward to the journey.
Welcome aboard, and I can’t wait to see what you think as you continue down your list!
A.J. Caldwell said:
I just finished Chernow’s book yesterday and subsequently found your blog on a web search. I am just now starting my chronological journey through the Presidents (after reading Isaacson’s book on B. Franklin, I decided to then go on to the Presidents), but only plan on one biography per as of right now. After looking around your blog for a while I plan to use this as a resource for helping me decide which volume to tackle each time.
Thank you for the time you are investing to share your experience with others!
Welcome to the “Presidents’ Club”! If you have the opportunity, do let me know what you think about the biographies you read, particularly if you have a strong reaction one way or the other. And if (when) you zip past me on the list of presidents at some point, make sure to let me know if you read something not on my list that I can’t afford to miss!
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I have been reading some books on Washington and agree with you that Chernow’s is indeed remarkable. (Damn! I hate to agree with…everybody.) But I also agree with you – at least I think you implied this – that there is something about the multi-volume effort that really helps you to understand a life. There is something about spending all that time, and reading about things that are not necessarily key to a president’s curriculum vitae, but that give you a deeper understanding of a life lived. I remember all the time Dumas Malone seemed to spend discussing the things Jefferson decided to pack on some given trip. But, you know, it describes what it was like to travel in those days.
I love Chernow’s book, but I hope people will start producing those multi-volumes again.
I really do think the multi-volume bios I’ve read (on Washington, Jefferson, Jackson and most recently Abraham Lincoln) have been the most probing, colorful and insightful of all the biographies I’ve read. They aren’t always as “entertaining” as the best-written single-volume bios, but I completely agree that they better illuminate the complexity of the individual and convey personality nuances that are generally missed in single volumes. I’m facing the very issue now while reading White’s “A. Lincoln” and comparing it to the two-vol. Burlingame series I just finished.
If that’s the case, when you get to it, you’ll probably really enjoy Edmund Morris’ treatment of Theodore Roosevelt.
In the midst of reading Washington, A Life and I have to agree with the comments here. It’s very well done.
Thanks for this blog. Really inspiring, and it’s good to know there are others who’ve made a plan to read the lives of the presidents :D.
Thanks – I’m glad to hear the Edmund Morris bio of TR should be good. After Grant (who I’m just getting to now) the next president I’m really looking forward to is TR, and the Morris bio is right at the top of that list!
I just finished this one. I thought it was pretty good overall, especially in the run up to the presidency. However, I thought Chernow glossed over Washinton’s actual presidency. That period was not covered in near enough depth. My other complaint was that Chernow was highly opinionated, which is pretty unfair considering Chernow was applying his 21st century opinions to an 18th century man. But, like I said, I thought it was a good book overall and recommended reading for the President’s club book tour.
Finished this a few weeks ago, and it was a great single volume work. It was a surprisingly quick read, but I enjoyed it all. I know he wasn’t president, but have you read Chernow’s bio of Hamilton? I’ve heard that’s also a great read.
I haven’t read Chernow’s “Hamilton” yet but it’s sitting on my bookshelf staring at me expectantly. I’m trying to finish the presidents before I get to other biographies, but at this point I’m already planning to read everything Ron Chernow has ever written for a public audience…!
Dan C said:
I just finished Chernow’s biography of our first President. It was an incredible start to my project to read a biography of each US President. I’ve always loved American history and was surprised at how little I knew about Washington’s self-proclaimed financial woes, internal struggle with slavery and difficult relationships with our third, fourth and fifth Presidents, especially Jefferson. Thanks so much for the suggestion of this great read. Now, on to McCullogh’s “John Adams.”
One down, forty-something to go! I can’t promise that everything will be as good as Chernow’s “Washington” but you will be surprised at the nuggets you take away from the life of each of the presidents. They are all interesting in some way though the talents of their biographers differs immensely at times!
Just curious, Steve. Of all the bios you’ve read so far, which has been your favorite and why?
Believe it or not, “Washington: A Life” followed closely by John Ferling’s bio of John Adams. In each case I found the subject to be fascinating, and in each case I thought they were superbly written. Many biographies covering presidents after those two are also quote good, but those are the two I would probably take with me to a deserted island if I had the chance.
That’s very interesting. So, it’s all downhill from here. 😀 Thanks.
Katie Routson Deitch said:
I was delighted to find your blog as I’ve wanted to embark on the presidential biographies journey for some time now. Not really wanting to read multiple biographies of each president, you have saved me considerable time and effort researching each one! Thank you! I’m starting out with Chernow’s bio on Washington tomorrow!
Ironic timing, as my neighbor (who is a decided fan of fiction over biographies) decided to read Chernow’s biography of Washington. He (allegedly) started today. I hope you both enjoy it – please let me know what you think!
I started this book way back in August, but due to how busy life has been over the past few months, I was just now able to finish it. What an amazing read it was. Very well done and full of information you simply are not taught in your high school and college history courses.
Next up, John Adams. Now to choose between McCullough or Ferling.
As I’m sure you discovered, I really loved Chernow’s bio of Washington! (At some point I’ll have to go back and re-read it to see if I still like it as much…it’s the only 5-star rating I’ve given.) As for John Adams…you really can’t go wrong between those two! In fact, I might just pull an all-nighter at some point if that’s what it takes to find the time to read both 🙂
I read Ferling and really enjoyed it. I own the McCullogh bio but wanted something different since i saw the HBO miniseries on Adams based on McCullogh’s book. Time well spent.
Just about done with this book and I gotta say, the review is spot on. Looking forward to reading about the other presidents!
This is still probably my favorite presidential biography, but it’s a close call – there are lots of great ones out there!
Carol Beaulieu said:
I am so glad I found your blog & I have the Ron Chernow bio on Washington. Can’t wait to start reading it now after reviewing all the prior comments. I did read Chernow’s “Hamilton” & I enjoyed it immensely. What a joy is to me to find all the books & authors you have read & to get a review. I just love history & it is nice to know many others do also…Thanks
Thanks for your note, and good luck with Chernow’s “Washington”! I’m more than a little jealous you’ve read “Hamilton” – it’s the first non-presidential bio I’m going to read when I get through the presidents!
Received a big box of biographies from Amazon this weekend and started Washington: A Life this morning. Thanks again for the work you’ve put in!
In my world that “big box” would be considered an early Christmas present – and a wonderful one at that. And I am still looking forward to the day when I actually treat myself to re-reading Washington: A Life which I expect to really savor the second time around 🙂
Todd Michael Carlsen said:
Tommy Fredriksson said:
Hi Steve, based on you review I read thru Remini’s single volume on Jackson. On a bad day day, he looked a lot like the current president and on a good day, he was probably as good as they come. Remini was easy to read and he managed the probably difficult task to stay somewhat neutral (an area where Unger could have done better on Monroe). Contrary to my plan to continue with something about Polk, I picked up Chernow’s Washington. The best presidential biography so far and also the most difficiult. Chernow is more eloquent and and his English a couple of notches above above many others. In the beginning I was reading my Google Translator app as much as the book! Hobnob was definitely a new word for me and there were others. I have still some 600 pages to go before I’m done but who’s complaining. After Washington, I’m gonna pick up McCullogh’s John Adams.
The current president reminds me of a mix of some of the characteristics of Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt and LBJ. If you haven’t gotten around to reading about TR and LBJ my comment might not make sense(!)
I really enjoyed Chernow’s “Washington” although it has now been almost 5 years since I read it (wow, time flies). McCullough’s John Adams was more or less the book that got me started on this entire journey: I started reading it and quickly wondered if I could find a similarly engaging book on each president…and the answer turns out to be no, not quite!
Good luck and happy reading!
Tommy Fredriksson said:
On the first page in Ch 39 it says: “Unable to tell a lie, Washington admitted in his diary that he had “cut down the two cherry trees in the courtyard.”
Chernow must have smiled, probably laughed a little, when he wrote that.
Tommy Fredriksson said:
Hi Steve, I completed Chernow’s Washington and I agree with you: It was really, really good. Knowing that the founding fathers are more or less demi gods, it was interesting to read about Jefferson and Madison who really came across as scheming ba******. I’m already looking forward to reading about TJ and JM to see what different perspectives I can find. But first, I will finish McCullough’s John Adams. 150 pages into it, I’m already in love with Abigail Adams 😉
Hi, Steve. Very glad I found your website. I decided a few months ago to read a biography of each president in order. After I read Joseph Ellis’s biographies of Washington and of John and Abigail Adams (both of which I thoroughly enjoyed), I thought I should make sure I was reading reputable biographies. I found your website and decided to backtrack a bit and read Chernow’s biography of GW. I’m almost done, and it’s an equally fascinating read (even as I know a lot of the story from Ellis’s book). I find Chernow’s book perhaps less deferential to, and more critical of, Washington, but also more even-handed. In some ways it makes Washington seem more human and thus more relatable. Ellis’s book had a lot of the same facts, but it seemed to view them through somewhat rose-colored glasses. Looking forward to McCullough’s biography of Adams next. Thanks for all the reviews!
Congrats on your decision to read a biography of each president! I think you’re going to be thrilled with that decision – surprisingly few presidents are not compelling in some way and only a few biographies really disappoint (and are relatively easy to avoid now!) I think you’ll really enjoy the McCullough bio, though when I go back and re-read Adams I’m going to have to read both McCullough and Ferling. Do let me know what you think as you go through your list!
Jim C said:
`Excellent book. Have read Cernows Titan, Grant and Washington. I could not put them down. I must admit I wept several times reading Washington. A life spent with a sense of duty and honor. In my mind a selfless man. It seems to me the great men suffer much at the hands of small and petty people. Thank you for your site. It saves me a lot of digging around as I respect your judgments of your reading.
Hard to believe it has been more than five years since I read this book. It will be the very first presidential bio I re-read (whenever that is!)
It wasn’t until I reached Lincoln that I was similarly impressed by one individual’s ability to make such an incredible mark on history and I’m glad there were biographers who were up to the challenge of capturing Lincoln’s essence (as was Chernow in Washington’s case).
Terry Hutchinson said:
I’ve recently run across your excellent blog. I’ve been doing a daily radio book review for the last 24 years (and still going strong). I agree completely with your analysis on this one.
A sidenote is that Chernow’s wife of many years passed away from some kind of cancer while he was writing. Its amazing to see how good it is in spite of this tragedy in his personal life. We’re all better off for his having made this effort.
Chernow is undoubtedly one of my favorite half-dozen biographers – and one of the few whose entire collection of works (on any subject!) I plan to read at some point.
I thought undertaking this journey for 6+ years showed some persistence on my part, but 24 years is…breathtakingly phenomenal!
Rick Cantrell said:
Hey, Steve! Congratulations on finishing your journey through so many presidential biographies. I have always been a big fiction reader, and as I got older, my interests have turned more toward history. I usually stay away from biographies for some reason, and mostly read straight historical works. I ran across this blog when looking for the best book about Lincoln. There were so many out there, and none of them seemed great. I am so thankful I came across your site, and also for all of the work you have done on it. It’s inspiring.
Long story shorter, I just finished Ron Chernow’s Washington. It was an amazing book, about an even more amazing life. I can’t wait to get to the lives of Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, to see if they come off any better in their own life stories than they do in Washington’s!
I’ll check back in as I make progress. Did you really do 80 pages a day for the whole 6 years? I hope your eyes are holding out! I’ve had to go to the Kindle more often, as the print gets pretty tiny on some of these big books.
Just finished this one. Great book overall. Only a couple minor nitpicks. I wish that Chernow would have let the actions of Washington speak for themselves and let the reader make their own conclusions on some things. It was hard to know if Washington felt a certain way about an event or situation or the author thought felt Washington felt a certain way about a situation. If it was done like Team of Rivals (one of my favs) it would have been a perfect 5 stars. Still great though since it gave us a thorough one volume on Washington that is currently unmatched.
The War years were probably my favorite parts of the book. Loved the resolve and determination that the general showed during the winters when all hoped seemed lost. He could have abandoned the cause but he did not. The descriptions of Washington interacting with the aides and having little dinners was a really treat. It was a small respite from the war and let them unwind and talk politics It really humanized him and it showed how much he took these young people under his wind and was like a father to them.
Gary Lesnau said:
Finished Chernow’s Washington! Great read! As a retired American History/American Government teacher I found the information priceless!
Every time I read someone’s about someone’s enthusiasm about Chernow’s biography of Washington, I wonder if I shouldn’t take a couple weeks and just…re-read it. Savor it. Probably enjoy it even more than I did the first time!?! And in case you’re wondering, I think Chernow’s bios of Hamilton and Rockefeller are nearly as good 🙂
I’m finally getting around to reading “Washington, A Life,” believe it or not. I follow your recommendations, although obviously, it is your opinion (although it is an educated one!) My question is as follows: Rather than slog through terrible biographies about boring presidents, can you give me a list of presidents for whom the return is just not worth the investment in time?
That’s tough to answer because I’ve found that the vast majority of former presidents can be interesting with the right biographical touch. The issue, for me, is more one of finding the right biographer rather than the right biographical subject.
I find both Washington and Lincoln fascinating…but each has biographies that I rate outstanding and one or more that I found disappointing and worth avoiding.
Presidents who are more “famous” and/or for whom there is simply more information tend to attract more, and perhaps more adept, biographers. But I’m not sure it’s fair to say someone should definitely read a biography of Reagan but skip over Chester Arthur.
As a general matter (and only in my opinion) the presidents between Van Buren and Buchanan, and between Hayes and B Harrison are the tougher groups to get through – but with lots of individual exceptions. But I wouldn’t go back and avoid any presidents, per se, I would just avoid biographies that don’t seem to match the style I enjoy.
Outstanding answer. . . I really appreciate (and I’m sure all of your readers do!) the time you spend to enlighten all of us, Steve. Your site has been a go-to for me for seven years. I am always waiting in anticipation of your next review.
Thank you, sir!
Stay safe. . .