Chernow unveils Washington at university forum

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Ron Chernow delved into the personality of George Washington by dispelling common myths at the university forum on Tuesday.

Chernow, a well-known journalist and historian, drew information from his biography, “Washington: A Life,” for which he received the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Biography and the 2011 American History Book prize.

Chernow showed the BYU audience that there was more to Washington than the historical stereotype. Rather than the stoic and reserved figure many picture, Washington was a man with a strained relationship with his mother, who kept up morale in his army during the brutal winter at Valley Forge and was the only founding father to free his slaves in his will.

Ron Chernow spoke about George Washington at the forum on Tuesday. (photo by Whitnie Soelburg)
Ron Chernow spoke about George Washington at the forum on Tuesday. (Photo by Whitnie Soelberg)

“He was not this bland figure history has painted him as,” Chernow said. “Behind his laconic facade, he was man of fiery opinions. The misunderstanding comes from us. We have sanded down the corners of his personality and have created a rigid picture of him.”

Chernow said the man who accomplished such historical feats must have been “a force of nature.”

He then turned to retiring common myths about Washington.

The childhood story of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree was fabricated by Parson Weems, an author of the time.

Chernow said the story is destructive not only because it was used to terrorize school children, but because it creates a misleading and austere figure of Washington.

Furthermore, Washington didn’t have wooden teeth. According to Chernow, when Washington became president, he had one tooth left. His dentures were made out of elephant ivory and human teeth, which took on a grainy look that could be mistaken for wood.

Chernow said there is no evidence that Washington ever wore a wig; and he was only 6 feet tall, as opposed to accounts of him being 6 foot 3 inches or taller.

“Try to open yourself up completely to the facts,” Chernow said. “Find someone different than the stereotypes attached to the man.”

Chernow said when people ask what George Washington was like, he asks what stage of his life they are referring to.

“He was constantly growing and changing and deepening,” Chernow said.

Though others had more original and spectacular minds, Chernow said Washington was exceptional in other ways. He encouraged his army to live by high moral standards, telling them to give up drinking, gambling and swearing.

“He had unique focus, discipline and drive. In terms of persistence and fortitude, he had no equal,” Chernow said.

Chernow said Washington had good judgment and clarity of vision compared to the more hot-headed founders. He established the precedent of two terms in office.

“He shaped the office of presidency,” Chernow said. “We live by his legacy today.”

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