I’ve already written a review of Kitman’s other book, George Washington’s Expense Account, and I said then I was gonna write this one up as well. I’ve enjoyed both of these books a great deal, both for the depth of historical detail and the breezy tone in which it educates the reader. Incidentally, that’s not an error in the title-Kitman says that in the past that’s how they spelled President, so that’s how he did it, and so then shall I.
The book details the path by which George Washington ascended to the White House. Born a poor boy with rich neighbors, he was apparently a meticulous study of math. He became a surveyor, buying land with the money he earned. After his marriage to one of the wealthiest women in the colonies, he entered politics as a rich land & slaveowner who served in the Virgina House of Burgesses, where he did exactly nothing. His military career as a major in the Virgina militia started with a lost battle against the French & Indians, which resulted in the creation of Fort Necessity, which was placed in the middle of a valley during a pouring rainstorm.
This uniform came in handy later when the Continental Congress was busy deciding who should be their commander in chief against the British. He wore it every day (and evidently had a real taste for dressing well). During the discussions, he wined and dined with many of the power players of the day, some of whom would later have positions in his administration. He also had a great love of dancing, sometimes for hours, with the wives of his hosts.
After much politicking and the promise to serve without pay, Washington was unanimously chosen as commander over John Hancock. Kitman records that Washington was not a natural leader and had some difficulty inspiring his men (not helped by Congress’ slowness in paying). The book has an engaging battle-by-battle discussion of each of the battles Washington commanded. His military career as leader of the colonial troops was not the best-he had many more defeats than victories, which was not due entirely to his own skill.
Washington is generally seen as a model Prefident, a man without scandal or sin. The man was generally loved in his time and is in ours, enjoying overwhelming adoration from the people past and present, ranging from a drastic uptick in “George” as a baby’s name to poems and the suggestion of “His Excellency” as title. Kitman does an amusing job of painting in the shades of our first Prefident. For example, he goes into detail about the pleasures of the day that George would have enjoyed. Washington, as did many men of the day, drank a LOT. An average day’s alcohol consumption in Philadelphia is recorded as “cider and punch for lunch; rum and brandy before dinner; punch, Madeira, port and sherry at dinner, punch and liqueurs with the ladies; and wine, spirit and punch till bedtime, all in punch bowls big enough for a goose to swim in.” During the 178 election, his agents supplied booze to 391 voters: 28 gallons of rum, 50 gallons of rum punch, 34 gallons of wine, 46 gallons of beer, 2 gallons of cider royal.
There were also the suggestions of many affairs Washington had with both notable ladies of the time, bolstered by their own letters about him. A few names of possible paramours are Kitty Greene, Sally Fairfax, Eliza Powel and many others. While there’s no direct evidence of any dalliances between them and Washington, Kitman offers a lot of educated conjecture and correspondence to support his theories.
Kitman does an excellent and in-depth examination of Washington’s early life, military & election campaign, as well as the schemes and tricks apparently used to gain him the Prefidency, all without losing his respect for Washington or suggesting he was the wrong man for the biggest job in the world. He quotes and uses a massive amount of documents for this book, and the fun tone of his storytelling doesn’t diminish the hard facts he brings to the table. Oh, and did I mention the foreword by John Cleese? That’s just the topping on the delicious historical cake.
As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.