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

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

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by John Ferling

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Perhaps the most revered American of all, George Washington has long been considered a stoic leader who held himself above the fray of political infighting. What has gone unnoticed about the much-researched life of Washington is that he was in fact a consummate politician, as historian John Ferling shows in this revealing and provocative new book. As leader of the…  See more details below


Perhaps the most revered American of all, George Washington has long been considered a stoic leader who held himself above the fray of political infighting. What has gone unnoticed about the much-researched life of Washington is that he was in fact a consummate politician, as historian John Ferling shows in this revealing and provocative new book. As leader of the Continental Army, Washington's keen political savvy enabled him not only to outwit superior British forces, but--even more challenging--to manage the fractious and intrusive Continental Congress. Despite dire setbacks early in the war, Washington deftly outmaneuvered rival generals and defused dissent from officers below him, ending the war with the status of a national icon. His carefully burnished reputation allowed Washington, as president, to lead the country under the guise of non-partisanship for almost all of his eight years in office. Washington, Ferling argues, was not only one of America's most adroit politicians, he was easily the most successful of all time--so successful, in fact, that he is no longer thought of as having been political.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

Ferling (history, emeritus, Univ. of West Georgia; Almost a Miracle) attempts to shed new light on the myth that George Washington was above partisan politics, instead showing that Washington was not only very partisan but probably one of America's best politicians. In fact, Ferling argues, he was so skilled at portraying himself as the impartial "father of the country" that most historians have overlooked his political savvy. Ferling seeks to remedy the situation with this "political biography." He traces Washington's evolution from a self-serving and insecure young man driven by a quest for recognition and wealth into a seasoned political veteran who could maneuver, cajole, and cut backroom deals as adroitly as any modern politician. One example is his handling of the Hamilton-Jefferson battles over the country's economic structure. Although Washington showed sympathy toward both sides and urged conciliation, it becomes clear by studying his behavior and writings at the time that he supported Hamilton's vision of a strong central government. Ferling has done his research and offers some new insights, but ultimately most of the history he presents is familiar. Recommended for readers interested in taking a fresh look at Washington's political life.
—Robert Flatley

Kirkus Reviews
Historian Ferling (Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence, 2007, etc.) unveils the canny politician behind America's first president. In a revisionist view, the author argues that Washington, generally thought of as a selfless Olympian figure who was above politics, was actually "a master of political infighting . . . one of the very best politicians in American history." Reminding readers of the president's godlike status at his death in 1799-people wore black armbands for 30 days-Ferling examines the career of this soldier, legislator and president, finding him burned with ambition for renown and success from an early age. Born with a meager inheritance and determined to enter the planter aristocracy, Washington kowtowed to the rich and powerful for a chance at winning glory as commander of Virginia's army in the French and Indian War, laying the groundwork for his postwar political ambitions. After 16 years in Virginia's House of Burgesses, where he cultivated other assemblyman as supporters, he took command of the Continental Army at no salary, burnishing his reputation as a self-denying warrior and emerging after the War for Independence as America's most powerful man. Ferling's bright narrative offers considerable evidence of Washington's savvy politicking in these later years. He sought a canal linking the Atlantic to the Ohio country that would cause his own lands to soar in value; after 1783 he twice declined to hold public office, knowing full well that the nation would demand that he leave the quiet of Mount Vernon to assume the presidency; as president he argued for locating the nation's capital in an area where he owned property. Never questioningWashington's greatness, Ferling insists that seeing him as an artful self-promoter and master politician only enhances his reputation as an adept leader who knew exactly what he was doing. In fact, writes the author, Washington "was so good at politics that he alone of all of America's public officials in the past two centuries succeeded in convincing others that he was not a politician."A fresh take on a monumental American.
Max Byrd
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 this 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." --Max Byrd

Max Byrd is the author of Grant and Shooting the Sun.

From the Publisher
"[A] bright narrative." —Kirkus
Sensing that such biographers as James Flexner and Joseph Ellis have accepted the above-politics thesis, Ferling inspects the evidence of Washington's political activities…while illustrating the substance behind Washington's image as the indispensable man, Ferling pointedly grounds that image in the political soil from which it sprang.
Washington Post Marie Arana
Once in a while a book comes along to remind us that history has no gods, that the past is less fossil than textbooks suggest and America more vibrant than a mere list of principles. John Ferling's Ascent of George Washington is just such a book: a fresh, clear-eyed portrait of the full-blooded political animal that was George Washington…In John Ferling's eminently readable, landmark interpretation, we cannot help but marvel at the man.
Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
The Washington who emerges from the nearly four hundred pages of well-crafted narrative is a man who became first in the hearts of his countrymen by looking out for Number One… Washington was a complex personality, as John Ferling's study makes clear, and it provides readers with a fuller portrait of the figure who was the First of Men of his time.

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The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
malegre More than 1 year ago
In "The Ascent of George Washington," John Ferling focuses on Washington's political life. The author goes behind the myth to reveal Washington's political flaws and genius. The portrait of Washington that emerges is of an adroit politician. Ferling gives a balanced perspective. Washington is revealed as having been enormously ambitious and driven to succeed. He was quick to claim credit for the accomplishments of others and skilled at laying blame on others for his own failures. He was expert at self-promotion. He was a poor tactician and strategist and commonly indecisive in a crisis. Yet Ferling believes Washington may have been the only person equipped to lead the American colonies to independence and to guide the fledgling nation. Washington's character, judgment, courage, industriousness, persistence, and political skills set him apart from his contemporaries. Ferling writes in a readable style without sacrificing scholarship. In this book he has scripted a convincing narrative of Washington's education as a leader. Today's leaders may learn from Washington's strengths and shortcomings. The reader will come away with a more human portrait of Washington, which very well may instill a greater appreciation for his achievements.
AngelicBlonde More than 1 year ago
This review is actually coming from reading the advanced reading copy. I know there were maps to be included in the final copy, which I think would greatly enhance the book. I really loved this book from start to finish. Mainly because it is not just another book on George Washington. The author, John Ferling, takes a new approach to this famous man by arguing that he was actually very political and highly partisan, which goes against what other historians have said. John Ferling takes the reader through George Washington's life and proves every step of the way that Washington was political and everything he did was to become more well-known and in a higher place politically. From a very early age the reader can see that Washington was ambitious. This doesn't lessen his accomplishments or make him less of a patriot. It makes him human. He did want to do the best for his country but he also, according to this author, wanted to do the best for himself as well. I highly recommend this book for everyone because it offers a fresh new look on an old subject. I think any from high school and up would enjoy this book and learn a bit more about our famous president. This is definitely worth the read and a great addition to a library.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
John Ferling's telling of the political life and development of George Washington was a revelation. I have always held the stereotypical images most of us probably share of Washington's wisdom, decisiveness, selflessness. This honest, balanced portrayal of the father of our country is refreshing and surprising. Ferling's interpretation (a "re-interpretation" to me) of this great man's public life is convincing, readable and scholarly, though never pedantic. His Washington is a real human being, with vices, ambitions, personal agendas, and frailties. In fact, the deal making, posturing, and shenanigans of today's politicians are a mirror image of the behavior of Washington's contemporaries. I have a new appreciation for how our country came into being and how fortunate we are that it survived those early years. The book deserves a wide audience. It's as readable and revealing and fresh as any good novel, yet it's all about how America got its uncertain start. Let's hope it doesn't just make the rounds of history departments and grad student library carrels.
Joan_Peel More than 1 year ago
Disappointing I bought this hoping to get some examples of Washington's political skills in action, but Ferling spends most of his time on a narrative of events. There are lots of examples of Washington's spin-doctoring, or use of proxies; not many of his taking an active role, and very few reactions from others. His service in legislature is rushed past, and there are precious few substantial examples of correspondence (sent or received). This may be due to lack of primary sources, but the end result is unsatisfying.
RoadHunter More than 1 year ago
I'm only in the middle of it but by Ferling's accounts so far you'd thing Washington was an idiot. Still, the book is quite readable and entertaining for a casual reader such as myself.
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Was up
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