John Ferling, The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon. Bloomsbury, 2009. Hardcover. $30. I received and read an ARC from the publisher as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.
George Washington looks over my shoulder as I write this. An old schoolhouse reproduction of the famous unfinished Gilbert Stuart "Athenaeum" portrait of Washington hangs on the wall behind me. This is the iconic Washington, the Washington of the dollar bill, the American demigod. This is the Washington of myth, the one who chopped down the cherry tree and could not tell a lie. But in his excellent new book, historian John Ferling reveals a different, less admirable, more human Washington—one who might have chopped down the cherry tree and then found a scapegoat on whom to pin the blame.
"What is most remarkable about Washington's ascent," Ferling writes, "is that he emerged an unsurpassed hero from two wars in which he committed dreadful—even spectacular—blunders and was personally responsible for only marginal successes." As Ferling demonstrates, Washington wasn't a spectacular commander in the field, but he was an able administrator and a skilled politician who knew how to build support for his political agenda while at the same time crafting an image of himself as a disinterested public servant who was entirely above politics. Ferling untangles the man from the myth, but argues that, for the purposes of holding together the fragile United States in its infancy, the myth of Washington was as important as the reality. Washington was a necessary man, whose innate skills were supplemented by careful image making to make him the fixed point around which American Independence coalesced. Even his political critics, like Thomas Jefferson, acknowledged this much.
The George Washington who emerges from Ferling's clear and cogent political biography is often far from admirable. His ascent is littered with the careers of men who crossed him, or who were made to take the fall for his blunders. Washington was a seasoned land speculator, and many of his policies and actions seemed to have been motivated primarily by a desire to protect and promote his investments in western land. In 1781, when the allied French commander Rochambeau recommended surrounding Cornwallis's army at the mouth of the Chesapeake, Washington stubbornly insisted on his long-cherished plan of laying siege to British-occupied New York. It was only through some deft maneuvering by Rochambeau that Washington was coaxed south to Yorktown. But in the successful aftermath, Washington was quick to take all the credit, just as he was quick to disclaim any blame when things went wrong.
Washington is also revealed as a master manipulator, and it's intriguing to watch the political dance engaged in by Washington and Alexander Hamilton, who was even more masterful at pulling political strings. Together, Washington and Hamilton invented the American economy, setting it on a path toward successful market capitalism. At the same time, in classic conservative fashion, their policies advanced the interests of the rich—men like themselves—at the expense of the poor. For example, the burden of the infamous whiskey tax of 1791 fell disproportionately on poor western farmers, and provoked the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. In his retirement from office, Washington set up his own whiskey distillery, knowing that he could exploit a tax loophole that favored eastern distillers.
Although I've read numerous books on the Revolutionary period and the early Republic, Ferling's explanations are among the most lucid I've read. He's an academic historian (a professor emeritus at the University of West Georgia), but he writes in an accessible style that rarely takes anything for granted, while still respecting the intelligence of his readers.
In the end, George Washington seems like an ur-Reagan—a skilled political actor who knew how to make the most of the role in which he was cast, and who became the avatar of a wider and more enduring conservative movement. He's great, in part, because of America's need for someone to embody and personalize its greatness. Ferling's book succeeds in uncovering Washington's often less than admirable motives, while allowing him to retain his stature as the necessary man for his times.
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