The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon

Somewhere around the age of 30, George Washington turned himself to stone.

Not all at once, and not completely. But so much so that by the time he rode into Philadelphia in 1775 for the Second Continental Congress, at the age of 43, his reputation was permanently fixed: a man of grave, stately bearing, with a “Soldier-like Air,” as a fellow delegate observed, “and a…hard countenance.” “As awful as a god,” added Abigail Adams. “A heart not warm in its affections,” said Thomas Jefferson carefully.

Jefferson was understating the matter badly. So aloof, chilly, and marmoreal was Washington, even in private, that his very presence could strike a gathering mute: “His own near relatives,” recalled his step-granddaughter, “feared to laugh or speak before him.” Once, during the Constitutional Convention, the witty and bold Gouverneur Morris bet Alexander Hamilton a dinner that he could break through great Washington’s reserve. On the appointed evening Morris walked up to him, placed his left hand casually on Washington’s shoulder, and said, “My dear General, I am happy to see you look so well.” Washington removed the hand from his shoulder, took one step back and, without a word, stared icily at Morris until the younger man slunk back into the crowd. “He had the gift of silence,” said John Adams rather wistfully.

He was not born with it. As John Ferling makes clear in his new study of Washington as politician, in his youth the General was a very different person. Almost from boyhood he was driven by something very like avarice and tormented, if that is not too strong a word, by a fever for renown. When he was barely 22 his rashness and inexperience led to a humiliating defeat of Virginia militia by French soldiers in the Pennsylvania wilderness. But he served with what can only be described as gusto (“I heard Bullets whistle,” he wrote his brother, “and believe me there is something charming in the sound”). And he continued to press repeatedly, obsessively for promotion and rank in both the militia and the British army, conscious that for an obscure and relatively poor young Virginian military glory offered almost the only path upward.

Soldiering also satisfied some perpetually furious and central part of his character. Though Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of Washington in powdered wig and white cravat shows nothing of it, the painter put his finger squarely on what lay beneath the granite facade: “Washington’s features, as he sate for me, were indicative of the strongest and most ungovernable passions…. Had he been born in the forest, I thought, he would have been the fiercest man among the savages.”

What changed him? There are a number of possible explanations: his difficult, estranged relationship with his mother, which came to a head, perhaps, with his marriage to Martha Custis in 1759; his profound admiration for the gentlemanly manners of the Fairfax family; the self-improvement manual called “Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation,” copied out in his own youthful hand and rigorously followed. It is more than possible that his secret and hopeless passion for Sally Fairfax, confessed to her just weeks before his marriage, caused a subsequent shutting down of visible emotion — what one generation calls self-discipline, another calls repression.

Ferling has covered many of these matters in an earlier biography of Washington (The First of Men, published in 1988) and in several other excellent books about the Revolutionary era, notably the bestselling Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (2007). Here he is interested in recounting the much-told story of Washington’s life only from the point of view, as his subtitle announces, of Washington’s “hidden political genius.” In particular, he wants to argue against the conventional idea that Washington was a wholly idealistic and “disinterested leader,” far above partisanship and self-interest. On the contrary, Ferling thinks, Washington was a “highly political individual,” so consummate a politician that he succeeded in convincing everyone else, then and now, “that he was not a politician.” Those core qualities of avarice and anger may have been obscured for his contemporaries by his unsmiling exterior, but they still drove and tormented him, almost to the end.

Ferling begins with a rapid and somewhat perfunctory account of Washington before the Revolution, stressing his uneven performance in the French and Indian War and his relentless, faintly disquieting efforts to acquire vast tracts of profitable land in the backcountry of Virginia.

Then, in what feels like a mistake of proportion, he devotes over 100 pages to a narrative of Washington’s career in the Revolution. This is familiar ground, yet Ferling loses track of his argument in it. No one will be surprised to hear of Washington’s indecisiveness in battle, his Fabian strategy, his masterful calm at Valley Forge. Washington’s political genius comes through chiefly in the well-known deference he shows Congress (like all politicians, he is a master of euphemism: when Congress turns tail and runs from Philadelphia, he blandly refers to it as their “adjournment”). The meticulously described quarrels with Generals Conway and Gates reveal little more than Washington’s insecurities — and violent temper.

Ferling’s two major points could have been made much more simply. In his dealings with our French allies, Washington showed an instinctive tact and grasp of international relations that would serve him well in his presidency. And though New Englanders early in the war complained of his “unapproachable” character, that same cold aloofness impressed his young officers profoundly and secured their loyalty: “in this age of monarchs,” Ferling shrewdly writes, “Washington radiated many of the qualities common to the royal figures the officers had so recently venerated — solemnity, an imposing dignity, a magisterial manner.”

It is this “royal” manner that Washington carried into the presidency and that, paradoxically, insured the survival of the struggling new republic. Here, as he takes up the Constitutional Convention and Washington’s two terms in office, Ferling finds his argument again — but it will not be to the liking of many readers. His Washington emerges not as a democratic champion of the common man but as a conservative landowning speculator, one who favors a strong central government because it protects property and because the common people are, as his closest ally Hamilton said, “turbulent” and “seldom judge or determine right.” The Framers, Ferling says, reviving an idea presented many years ago by Charles Beard, were above all “driven by economic motives.” The magisterial proprietor of Mount Vernon “was obsessed with conserving, rather than reforming, American society.”

As president, Ferling insists, though he deplored party faction and presented himself as above the fray, in reality Washington deliberately favored the anti-democratic policies of Hamilton. His grave demeanor and undeniable self-sacrificing heroism during the war made his neutrality easy to believe. It is conceivable that Washington himself believed it. Even so, Ferling says, whether or not Washington understood this, Hamilton and the “ruling elite” used him. They knew, he says (in a carelessly mixed metaphor), that “the new republic needed a rudder…. In the absence of a monarch who could serve as the glue that held things together, it was politically necessary that Washington be made the acclaimed symbol, the standard around which all could rally.”

Not everyone did rally around, of course. Jefferson, in one of the sadder episodes of our early history, broke with his fellow Virginian, mostly over Washington’s repeated favoring of Federalist positions but partly, one suspects, because of his dislike of Washington’s regal manner (this is the Jefferson who despised that “class of human lions, tygers, and mammouths called kings”). John Adams concluded that “Washington was but a puppet and Hamilton the puppeteer,” though he may have been influenced by his wife, Abigail’s, opinion of Hamilton: “O I have read his Heart in his wicked eyes many a time. The very devil is in them.”

In Washington’s second term, political attacks on him, formerly unthinkable, became widespread and vicious. Nothing that Hamilton and the other Federalists could say would persuade him to risk his fame or endure another four years in office. He already feared, as he wrote a friend, that partisan criticism had begun to destroy his reputation, just, he said in a richly suggestive image, as “drops of Water will Impress (in time) the hardest Marble.” And yet the stony façade remained, as formidable and imposing as ever. Toward the end of his presidency, the wife of the British ambassador told him that she could see in his face the pleasure he expected from retirement. “You are wrong,” Washington said, “my countenance never yet betrayed my feelings.”