reading not enough learning books knowledge blog charlie sanabria early life daredevil young general planter Washington life book Ron Chernow
reading not enough learning books knowledge blog charlie sanabria summary Washington life book Ron Chernow

Date posted: December 29th 2016

Book Title: Washington - A Life (Part 1)

 
 

Book-in-a-sentence

Fear?... I'm not familiar with such a word...

My Summary (audio)

Introduction

Alright, George Washington was born in 1732... However...the problem I have with this, is that whenever I read anything that starts with a date, I immediately lose interest. Very often because I’m not familiar with the historical events around that date and (in my ignorance) I get angry and blame it on the text. So let me put things in perspective here before we all lose interest...What does 1732 mean? Well:

    Isaac Newton came up with the law of universal gravitation forty‑five years earlier. This means humans knew about planets and space (despite never leaving our atmosphere).
    America had been discovered 240 years earlier! Enough time for many cities to be pretty well established despite people calling them “Colonies”.
    These colonies had their own armies (called Provincial Armies), which were different from the Royal Army of Britain—and these Provincial Armies were often used to fight off the Indians and the French as the colonies expanded.
    The first fossil had NOT been discovered yet, and wouldn’t be discovered for another thirty‑nine years.1

So, George Washington was born in a time where entitled European Kings controlled everything that happened in America, a time where candles and bonfires were the only man‑made light source at night, a time where communication between cities happened at the speed of the fastest horse, and a time where people didn't even know what a dinosaur was!

  1. This one blows my mind. Imagine living in a world where no one knows what a dinosaur was

  2. She really was, I’m not trying to be funny

  3. Nobody calls him that. Is just me trying to emphasize on the fact that most historical figures once were “not so great”, and that a huge part of their success is owed to luck

  4. Almost as if he knew that people would talk about his life for the rest of history

  5. Or inoculation, as it was called back then.

  6. Two of the most successful businessmen of the 21st century

  7. Except if you are Alexander the Great

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A difficult childhood

George Washington was the oldest son of his father’s second marriage, and his father died when he was 11, which made George almost directly responsible for the upbringing of his younger siblings since his mother was kind of a bitch2. I believe it was she, who shaped George into a very stoic person who hid his feelings from everyone. Because she would never show support for his decisions in life, and in fact openly criticized him.

So, since his mom was a bitch, and his father was dead, most of George’s inspiration as a teenager came from his older step‑brothers, especially Lawrence, a young Adjutant General who loved telling George his war stories, and tales of his military feats.

Portrait Lawrence Washington older half brother George Washington

Portrait of Lawrence Washington, older half‑brother of George Washington

Image under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Washingtons were pretty rich in land, but they lacked the political and social ‘touch’ needed to be part of Virginia’s elite society. They acquired that touch through the marriage of Lawrence and Anne Fairfax—the daughter a rich Virginia Colonel named William Fairfax. This close friendship with the Fairfaxes boosted and mentored the boys into the apex of Virginia’s society.

Six feet tall (although often thought to be taller because of his composure and presence), George grew up to be a very healthy‑looking young man. However, we must keep in mind that we are talking about the 18th century, and disease was everywhere! During his twenties ‘lucky‑little‑George’3 survived pleurisy, malaria, dysentery, and smallpox—all acquired over a period of two years! Unfortunately his brother Lawrence was not as lucky, he died from Tuberculosis when George was 20. It was a tragic death, but this loss was the push George needed to join the army—since up to now he had only been a land surveyor and his military dreams were lived vicariously through his brother’s stories.

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A reckless young General

George became a district adjutant for the Provincial Army of Virginia at 21 in 1753. And he would have been a fantastic General during the upcoming French and Indian war if it wasn't for all the unfortunate situations he faced in the next five years (right before the war broke out).

For five years, he messed up (pretty much) every one of his major tasks. In his defense, not all of it was his fault; he was constantly given more than he could handle. For example, on one of his first tasks, Lieutenant governor Robert Dinwiddie asked him to secure what today would be Ohio, and to tell the French troops to retreat. Bad idea, especially since George was given the power to “apply deadly force”.

So George went on, through the icy wilderness—armed with his limited experience, accompanied by a small army, and aided by a group of deceitful Indians—and eventually encountered a french encampment, as expected. Unfortunately the situation turned into imprudent 15‑minute bullet exchange during which a French citizen carrying a diplomatic message got killed, big mistake!

The news resonated all the way to England and gave George the reputation of a reckless young provincial General—as if the British needed any more reasons to hate the provincial army. A few days later the French retaliated, and George chose one of the worst spots to defend himself. Fort Necessity. Plenty of colonial blood was spilled that day but lucky‑little‑George was not harmed. He was forced to surrender, but to make matters worse (regarding his reputation), he agreed to sign a poorly translated manuscript from the French saying that he had willingly assassinated the soldier carrying the diplomatic message… oh George....

Defeated and humiliated, he retired for a couple of months from the Army. However his reputation soon took a turn for the better. People started acknowledging that he had confronted terrifying odds, and that he did better than anyone else would have ever done in his position. So, feeling a little refreshed by public opinion, he applied to serve as an aide‑de‑camp to British Major General Edward Braddock, this time as part of the Royal army, not the crappy provincial army.

Portrait General Edward Braddock George washington commander Royal Army

Portrait of General Edward Braddock, George’s commander in the Royal Army

Image under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Fort Necessity debacle had taught George a valuable lesson: the fact that the French had adopted an Indian attacking‑style—consisting of very sneaky attacks even in heavy weather conditions—very different from the European open‑battlefield nonsense. George warned Braddock about this, but this only made things worse. Causing them to lose their sleep; trying to come up with different ways to counteract (or even detect) an attack. The strategy turned so complex that one day a small group of paranoid soldiers, walking in heavy fog, encountered a second group (still part of Braddock's army) and started shooting each other! Thirty men were lost...

Later, during an actual attack from the French, three hundred Royal Army soldiers were killed—compared to a mere twenty‑three French casualties. During one of these attacks Braddock was killed, but once again, lucky‑little‑George kept riding amidst the bullets (something he later became rather known for). People started spreading the myth that he was immune to lead—confirming in the eyes of the public, that he must be extremely skilled to have come alive from two such inevitable tragedies.

With Braddock gone, George Washington, at 23, was appointed as the Supreme Commander of the military forces in Virginia. Even at this young age, he was extremely aware of his responsibility and the exemplary role that a General must have. Constantly self‑improving, George did everything in his power to make his troops behave (and look) professionally. Unfortunately for him, his army was never up to standards—something that he struggled with even during the Revolution.

It was not that he set the bar too high. He was just given the most pitiful group of drunken rascals who could barely clothe themselves! There was an utter lack of discipline in his lines. Plus, he was constantly struggling with people unlisting and deserting the army. George also had issues with his superiors, asking them incessantly for better troops, more food, and decent clothes—failing time after time under the weight of the political pyramid.

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The Businessman

Slowly but surely George grew tired. He was sick of the tangled bureaucracy that was arising at the eve of the French‑Indian war, and it was around that time he met Martha Custis. This wise (and not‑so pretty) woman quickly learned how to fit into George’s complex life. Coming from a wealthy family as well, she was a perfect match for the future father of the United States. Meeting Martha made George more aware of the incessant struggles and the bad luck he had had during his entire military career so far. So he decided to quit (at 27), and become a full time planter.

Martha Custis Washington young

Martha Custis Washington as a young woman (Steel engraving).

Image under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

In retrospect, it appears almost like this young General had acquired all the bravery and courage that he would later need during the Revolution, and now he needed some time to gather his wisdom—to improve himself politically and morally. These couple of decades as a planter brought out the best of George Washington’s economic and political qualities. He became an extremely dedicated and disciplined person; recording every one of his moves4, and keeping close track of his crops, slaves, land, and trade with scrutinizing detail. He was also aware of the aura that seemed to accompany him when riding his horse, so he used to ride every day (like clockwork) around the plantation to keep the workers motivated.

George also proved to be a very scientific person. He practiced vaccination at his farm5, in a time when the idea wasn't even fully understood—and had excellent medical care for his slaves. George even experimented with cross‑species reproduction such as mules; as well as some plant mixes by purposely sprinking the pollen from one species into another flower’s reproductive canal. He even bred his own dog species, the American Foxhound.

George was a busy man indeed, and he seemed to have no trouble at all with handling large properties, or dealing with the fast‑pace and complex life of wealthy families. His house (known as Mount Vernon) became a living thing, having visitors constantly coming and going, exporting goods to and from England, having a fast growing slave population, and an ever expanding farm. With so many people, he became extremely capable at dealing with personal situations. He learned to influence people through example or even sometimes by the mere fact of being near them—his silence became one of his most deadly weapons.

I think what George did with his property is what Warren Buffett or Carlos Slim6 would have done if they had lived back then. George was a visionary. Always wanting more land and more goods, it seemed like he would never be satisfied. But, land expansion seemed to be his only purpose—and you don’t write history by having such a silly purpose7.

Fortunately, Great Britain would soon give him a grander purpose. They had no idea about it (of course), but they should have never reached into George Washington’s pocket, they would pay that with blood.

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