As a young man, the eminent Founding Father was impetuous, thin-skinned, and prone to anger and paranoia.
“Perhaps the strongest feature in his character was prudence,” Thomas Jefferson remarked about the venerable Washington (1732-1799). Abigail Adams described him as “dignity with ease,” and her husband, John Adams, noted his “great self-command.” But as Outside correspondent Stark (Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival, 2014, etc.) portrays him in his lively, well-researched biography, Washington in his 20s was far different: “ambitious, temperamental, vain,” and stubborn. “When thwarted,” he was quick to erupt in “explosive anger.” Acutely sensitive to any “threat to his honor or pride,” his first reaction was to quit. Born into a family that never rose above “the second tier” of Virginia society, Washington coveted status and wealth, looking to military command as a way to gain acceptance by the Colonial elite. His goal—never realized—was to be awarded a commission by the king. Stark follows Washington’s career as he rose from part-time junior officer, serving Virginia Gov. Robert Dinwiddie, to colonel, overseeing motley, undisciplined, underfunded soldiers. The author conveys in gritty detail the challenges of 18th-century conflict: an untamed frontier, violent Indians, chigger attacks, torrential rains, lack of food and arms, dysentery, and deserters. Tasked with preventing the French incursion into the Ohio Valley, Washington failed spectacularly; inexperienced in military strategy, he “watched dumbfounded in horror” as Indians who agreed to aid his troops fell murderously upon French soldiers, slicing off their scalps as trophies. The bloody massacre, Stark asserts, led to the protracted French and Indian War. Nevertheless, in 1755, after he bravely aided a wounded British general, Washington earned a reputation as a fearless hero. Just as significant, he came to believe that he was protected by divine forces, “for some greater purpose.” Gradually realizing his responsibility to protect vulnerable settlers, he grew in empathy, selflessness, and determination to serve others.
A discerning history of pre-Revolutionary America and the man who shaped its future.