The Grand Idea: George Washington's Potomac and the Race to the West

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"The war had been won. Now what? This was the pressing political question for the United States in 1784, and a consuming one for George Washington. He had laid down his sword and returned home to Mount Vernon after eight and a half years as commander of the Continental Army. He vowed that he had retired forever, that he would be a farmer on the bank of the Potomac River, under his own "vine and fig tree." But history was not done with him, and he was not done with history." "Within a year, as Joel Achenbach relates in this narrative, Washington
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Overview

"The war had been won. Now what? This was the pressing political question for the United States in 1784, and a consuming one for George Washington. He had laid down his sword and returned home to Mount Vernon after eight and a half years as commander of the Continental Army. He vowed that he had retired forever, that he would be a farmer on the bank of the Potomac River, under his own "vine and fig tree." But history was not done with him, and he was not done with history." "Within a year, as Joel Achenbach relates in this narrative, Washington saddled up and rode away on one of the most daring journeys of his rich and adventurous life: a trek across the Appalachian mountains to the frontier, where he would inspect his long-neglected western property and try to collect rent." "The Grand Idea is the story of Washington's ambitions for the brand-new republic that he had fought so hard to create. His western journey culminates in a breathtaking scheme: Washington, with the help of Thomas Jefferson, will transform the Potomac River into a commercial artery that will link the new West to the old East. Worried that the newborn country was so fragmented that it might literally split into two separate and rival nations, he uses the skills he learned as a young backwoods surveyor to come up with his river plan. The future of the Union, Washington believes, depends on the Potomac route to the West, which will bind the country to one enterprise." "Achenbach's sympathetic and wry portrait of General Washington is not the stiff figure of official portraits, but that of a bold man who plunges into uncharted forest and sleeps in a downpour with only his cloak for shelter. He is an inventor, entrepreneur, and land speculator. He loves the West. This Washington is someone who understands that the fledgling republic clinging to the Atlantic seaboard will become a great and booming nation." Achenbach tracks Washington's river plan from the choosing of the site for the national ca
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Editorial Reviews

Henry Wiencek
Joel Achenbach's The Grand Idea may be the ideal reading for anyone who's ever floated on, driven over, or merely gazed languidly upon the capital's mighty river and wondered about its history. As Achenbach recounts in this engaging and solidly researched book, George Washington cast his appraising eye on the Potomac and saw a watery highway to the West, a route that would unlock the riches of the Ohio Valley.
The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
A snappy book about a river and horseback trip more than two centuries ago? Hard to pull off, but Achenbach (Captured by Aliens, etc.) has done so with enough authority to satisfy historians and in a lively style sure to please general readers. His tale is about George Washington's fixation with the West not today's Far West but the lands inland of the Appalachians and about what that single-minded interest came to mean for the nation. One wouldn't think that chapters devoted to a single horseback trip that Washington, the nation's first great westerner, took inland in 1784 could be of much interest. But the author uses that trip to unroll a large canvas of subjects, chief among them how a single man's "personal issues had a way of becoming national ones." Fleshing out a day-to-day itinerary with lively excursions into the land's geography, politics, farmers and backwoodsmen, Indians and slaves, Achenbach also unwraps Washington's personality, at once magisterial and rough, obsessive yet realistic, accepting of the people but disdainful of those who got in his way. The Potomac, whose successful development as grand route to the interior would greatly benefit Washington, also plays a central role. Achenbach explains how the river's intractable geography kept the nation's capital from becoming the great metropolis of Washington's dreams. Toward the end, the book wanders off into the Civil War and such subjects as today's Potomac and its landscape. Achenbach ought to have stuck close to his opening intent. The story of Washington's fixity on a dream impossible to realize is a good enough tale on its own. 6 maps. Agent, Michael Congdon. (June) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
After retiring from the army in 1783, George Washington boldly proposed transforming the Potomac River into a key east-west commercial thoroughfare to the Ohio River, hoping that the Potomac would make Virginia, Maryland, and himself prosperous and unite the young nation's Atlantic states with its trans-Appalachian territories. In 1784, Washington traveled into backcountry (now West) Virginia and Pennsylvania to gather information for his grand idea. Achenbach (Captured by Aliens), a Washington Post staff writer, describes the journey Washington undertook, giving glimpses of his observations of the area's natural features and the frontier life of white, black, and Native Americans. Achenbach successfully weaves Washington and early America with the Potomac and carries the narrative of the river to the present. Though Warren Hofstra's George Washington and the Virginian Backcountry and Charles Royster's The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company offer scholarly, analytical presentations of Washington as a land-speculating businessman, landlord, outdoorsman, and slaveholder, Achenbach makes such knowledge accessible to lay readers. Recommended for all public libraries. Charles L. Lumpkins, Pennsylvania State Univ., State Coll. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
"Truly riveting....Achenbach allows the reader to understand the real Washington in so many new ways he literally grows in stature."
— Douglas Brinkley, The Boston Globe

"A magnificent display of impeccable scholarship blended with incomparable storytelling."
Fort Worth Star-Telegram

"This is history as storytelling, driven by personalities and ideas."
USA Today

"Reveals a dimension of the man not often seen — that of Washington as a dreamer....He too had dreams, and happily for readers, Achenbach rediscovers them."
The Washington Monthly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684848570
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 6/1/2004
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.58 (w) x 9.66 (h) x 1.19 (d)

Meet the Author

Joel Achenbach is a reporter for The Washington Post, and the author of six previous books, including The Grand Idea, Captured by Aliens and Why Things Are. He started the Washington Post's first blog, Achenblog, and has worked on the newspaper's national Style magazine and Outlook staffs. He regularly contributes science articles to National Geographic. A native of Gainesville, Florida and a 1982 graduate of Princeton University, he lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife and three children.

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Read an Excerpt

The Grand Idea

George Washington's Potomac and the Race to the West
By Joel Achenbach

Simon & Schuster

Copyright © 2004 Joel Achenbach
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-684-84857-0


Chapter One

The Race to the West

When Washington looked at a map, he saw that the major rivers between Virginia and New England were like the splayed fingers of his right hand, turned palm-down. The Connecticut and the Hudson and the Delaware and the Susquehanna ran generally north-south, in parallel - but the Potomac was down here, on the left, low on his hand, a curved thumb jutting toward the western frontier. He couldn't miss the obvious message: The Potomac wasn't just a southern river, it was a western river.

The seaboard of the mid-Atlantic states didn't run north-south, after all, but rather from northeast to southwest. Georgetown, at the fall line of the Potomac, could claim to be the westernmost port on any of these rivers. Washington had spent his life taking the measure of things, and he could easily see that the village of Pittsburgh, at the Forks of the Ohio - the Gateway to the West - was closer to Georgetown on the Potomac than it was to Philadelphia. In a logical and orderly world, the Potomac would unquestionably become the highway between the Atlantic and the Ohio River watershed.

For Washington and many others of his generation, geography was destiny. To know the future you had to study maps. You had to look at the land, follow the rivers in their courses, gauge the difficulty of the mountains and the possibilities of portage. You had to know not only distances and elevations, but also the soils, the annual rainfall, the drainage, the predominant trees, the availability of forage and game, the presence of minerals, the proximity of salt, the date when a river would close with ice and when it would open in the spring - all the practical data embedded in the environment. The enterprising American had to abide faithfully by the commandment of John Adams: "Really there ought not to be a state, a city, a promontory, a river, a harbor, an inlet or a mountain in all America, but what should be intimately known to every youth who has any pretensions to liberal education."

The Potomac's rivals among American rivers had some geographical virtues of their own. The Susquehanna, marred by falls and rapids near its mouth, was nonetheless the largest river system along the seaboard, with a watershed extending from upstate New York to the Chesapeake. The hazardous lower reaches could be circumvented by roads, in theory. The western branch of the Susquehanna, like the Potomac, emerged from deep within the Alleghenies.

The Hudson loomed as an even more formidable competitor. The Hudson is a fjord, splitting the mountains, and carrying the pulse of tide all the way to Albany, 150 miles from New York Harbor. From the west the Hudson is joined by the Mohawk. A traveler moving up the Mohawk would discover some falls and rapids and difficult portages, but no mountains, for the Alleghenies were off to the south and the Adirondacks off to the north. There was a broad gap in the Appalachians, screaming for a commercial artery to the west.

The St. Lawrence River, far to the north, provided another western passage, for it flowed from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic behind the Appalachian chain. It gave the French the perfect entry to the fur-rich continental interior in the early seventeenth century. The glaciers that gouged the Great Lakes left only a modest berm along the southern shore of the lakes, and the Indians taught the French how easily they could portage to the rivers flowing into the Ohio and Mississippi.

The Potomac had another competitor on its southern flank, the James, running east-west through central Virginia. Some Virginians had envisioned a link between the James and the New, the river known downstream as the Great Kanawha. The New flows across the mountains in the opposite direction from the other transappalachian rivers, almost as if providing a Newtonian counter-reaction to the flow of the Potomac. But the New is an ornery, vicious mountain river that runs through impassable gorges. Washington gave lip service to the James and the New only to keep his southern Virginia friends happy.

One final river entered the picture, and it was a monster: the Mississippi. Compared with the Mississippi, the Potomac was just a millrace. The Mississippi clearly had the potential to be the major artery of commerce in the West, but for the moment, it wasn't open for business. Spain controlled the Lower Mississippi, including New Orleans, and in 1784 closed the river to American commerce. That move created no distress for Washington, who didn't want Spain to lure the western settlers into its orbit. Keep the Mississippi closed, Washington thought, until we have time to bind the westerners to the East.

And that's where the Potomac came in. It showed a way through the mountains. It blasted through stone. With a little improvement the Potomac would make those westerners forget about the Mississippi and the Hudson and the Susquehanna and every other competing route.

Washington's idea about the natural superiority of the Potomac had grown into something like a faith. He was prepared to gamble a great deal on this river - his time, his money, his reputation. He had bought large tracts of land along the Potomac and Ohio river corridors, and that itself was a gamble, a wager that this was the right strip of America for a rich man's investment. The Potomac route wasn't an abstract issue for him. He'd bet the farm.

Washington didn't have to rely entirely on his own geographical analysis. He had a crucial ally, a fellow Revolutionary, geographer, surveyor, Virginia planter, and thinker of big ideas: Thomas Jefferson.

The Potomac brought them together in a way that the Revolution itself (and the War of Independence - which was not quite the same thing, as Jefferson and John Adams pointed out in their old age) never could. Though Washington and Jefferson could both boast of being Revolutionaries in a formal sense, Jefferson had made his greatest contribution with his pen. He had camped comfortably by the hearth of Monticello while Washington and his men gnashed their teeth at Valley Forge.

Jefferson and Washington began corresponding about the Potomac in the spring of 1784. In their individual ways, both had spent many years thinking about the West, and now their interests converged. The two men had recently spent time together at Annapolis - Washington's final address to Congress, explaining his decision to retire, may have been partially scripted by the younger Virginian. (When a person needs a speechwriter in a pinch, it's always nice to hear that Thomas Jefferson is in the building.)

They had certain traits in common. Both men knew their dirt. To be a planter in Virginia required an intimate understanding of soil, climate, pests, weeds, and as their land grew barren under the harshness of tobacco cultivation, they kept searching for new ground to cultivate. Jefferson owned 10,000 acres, including a tract at a separate plantation called Poplar Forest, though he was never in the same league as Washington, who by the end of his life would be among the largest landowners in the country. They each had a natural engineering impulse, always thinking of ways to improve their farms and the tools for wringing food from the soil. Washington had his fishing nets, distillery, barns, and fine breed of jackasses; Jefferson invented a new kind of plow.

Jefferson brought to the discussion an Olympian certitude about what was right and wrong in the race to the West. This is the way it must be done, he would say. This is the course that nature dictates. This is what an enlightened and rational person should think.

"[T]he Ohio, and it's branches which head up against the Patowmac," Jefferson wrote fellow Virginian James Madison, another Potomac promoter, "affords the shortest water communication by 500 miles of any which can ever be got between the Western waters and Atlantic, and of course" - exact science now giving way to a blunt provincialism - "promises us almost a monopoly of the Western and Indian trade."

Jefferson didn't think Virginia could afford to dawdle. Pennsylvania and New York would seize the trade if Virginia hesitated in the slightest. The resources of the West staggered the mind: inexhaustible minerals, endless trees, dark soil begging for the plow, furs beyond imagination. If those resources could be sent to the world through Alexandria, the port on the Potomac could become a fabulous entrepôt, perhaps the commercial center of the nation - bigger than New York.

Jefferson told Madison that the Pennsylvanians were plotting to build a canal connecting Philadelphia with the Susquehanna, and that the project would cost only 200,000 pounds. "What an example this is! If we do not push this matter immediately," Jefferson wrote Madison, "they will be beforehand with us and get possession of the commerce...."

Jefferson added that the Potomac navigation project would be a fine hobby for General Washington in his old age: "Genl. Washington has that of the Patowmac much at heart. The superintendance of it would be a noble amusement in his retirement and leave a monument of him as long as the waters should flow."

Washington and Jefferson were not friends, exactly, but they found each other useful, at least for the moment, and fed off each other's enthusiasm. They shared a fascination with scientific agriculture. They had no patience with religious pieties and, though not atheists, increasingly steered clear of the church. Both perceived their historical significance and took great care to preserve their personal papers. Jefferson had a more facile brain and far greater eloquence, and he noted the disparity many years later in a rather cold assessment of Washington: "His mind was great and powerful, without being of the very first order ... when called for a sudden opinion, he was unready, short, and embarrassed."

On March 15, 1784, a few weeks after writing to Madison, Jefferson sent a long letter to Washington that laid out the geographic and economic reasons why Washington should pursue the Potomac navigation project. Although Jefferson idealized the simple life of farming, he acknowledged that the world was changing, that people craved manufactured goods, that they would not be content to wear homespun clothes and eat only the fruits of their own labors:

All the world is becoming commercial. Was it practical to keep our new empire separated from them we might indulge ourselves in speculating whether commerce contributes to the happiness of mankind. But we cannot separate ourselves from them. Our citizens have had too full a taste of the comforts furnished by the arts and manufactures to be debarred the use of them. We must then in our own defence endeavor to share as large a portion as we can of this modern source of wealth and power. That offered to us from the Western country is under a competition between the Hudson, the Patomac and the Missisipi itself.

The Ohio trade, Jefferson informed Washington, was nearer to Alexandria than to New York by 730 miles (Washington later questioned his math) and was interrupted by only one portage.

Nature then has declared in favour of the Patowmac, and through that channel offers to pour into our lap the whole commerce of the Western world.... This is the moment in which the trade of the West will begin to get into motion and to take it's direction. It behoves us then to open our doors to it.

Nature had chosen the Potomac. This was a powerful idea. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and their allies had a duty, not only as Virginians, but as men who thought about the dictates of nature and the imperatives of geography, to support nature's decision. Jefferson's words carried weight with Washington, but not so much because they offered new insight - the younger man was telling the older man a lot of things he already knew (indeed there is almost an element of impertinence in Jefferson offering advice to the country's leading Potomac expert). What really struck Washington was that Jefferson had no direct stake in the scheme, that he owned no land along the Potomac or the Ohio. Jefferson lived a full two days' ride on a swift horse south of the Potomac, near the Rivanna River, a tributary of the James. Jefferson's sanction seemed pure.

Washington touched on this directly, and with admirable frankness, when he wrote back to Jefferson: "I am not so disinterested in this matter as you are, but I am made very happy to find that a man of discernment and liberality, who has no particular interest in the plan, thinks as I do, who have lands in the country, the value of which would be enhanced by the adoption of such a measure."

Jefferson had cleared Washington's conscience. A man who wouldn't take a salary as commander in chief certainly wouldn't push a river-navigation scheme to enhance the value of his lands. With Jefferson's affirmation of nature's intent, Washington could persuade himself that this was not primarily a personal project, that he had national interests in mind, and the interests of Virginia and Maryland, of Alexandria and Georgetown. He would be tidying up a geological feature already selected for national significance by the Master Designer of the Universe. He could plausibly say, This isn't about me.

Washington told Jefferson that local rivalries had stopped his own efforts in the past to put public funds behind Potomac improvements. The Baltimoreans had looked askance at the situation. They worried that the Potomac would draw commerce away from their city. Congress, meanwhile, had been ineffectual in domestic matters - stymied by what Washington called, using a wonderful if rather obsolete term, "inertitude." He warned Jefferson that one group of northern rivals was not wasting time: "I know the Yorkers will delay no time to remove every obstacle in the way of the other communication" (via the Hudson). The general had spent a lot of time with the entrepreneurial Yorkers, and knew they were eager to exploit the western trade through the Hudson-Mohawk route. But Washington and Jefferson persuaded themselves that the Hudson and Susquehanna rivers were too far north and too far east. As northern rivers, they would be closed by ice much longer than would the Potomac. And as eastern rivers, they were remote from the Forks of the Ohio and the vast western territory.

If someone wanted to go east from the West, why would they take the long way around?

Potomac navigation had interested Washington for decades. The river had caught his fancy as a young man, even before the French and Indian War. Between 1749 and 1753, he spent much of his time tromping around the Potomac backcountry, surveying for Lord Fairfax and putting together his initial landholdings in the Potomac Valley.

Continues...


Excerpted from The Grand Idea by Joel Achenbach Copyright © 2004 by Joel Achenbach. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1. The Surveyor

2. The Race to the West

3. Up the River

4. Ridge and Valley

5. Squatters

6. A Darker Wood

7. Skirting the Falls

8. Trial and Tribulation

9. A Capital Idea

10. The Final Measurement

11. The Second American Revolution

12. The Progress of Man

13. A Heroic Age

14. The Border

15. The River Today

Notes

Acknowledgments

Index

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2006

    Outstanding Commentary

    Joel Achenbach's superb little book on 'George Washington's Potomac and the Race to the West,' is, quite frankly, one of the best GW books I've ever had the pleasure to read. That said, there is so much more to this masterwork than just George Washington's dreams of western expansion and 'cemented' notions of 'union.' Achenback treats his subjects with precision, insight, and complete honesty. One gets the impression that Joel is, himself, on a journey yet delivers the goods without ever drifting into some distracting fever-pitched hagiography which so often accompanies such chronicals. He shares his knowledge as if conducting a personal tour. He knows his subject, and he knows it well -- very well. Achenbach not only takes the reader on a jaunt through time, space, and pivotal events therin, he fills up the periphery with parallel epic events as well, for instance, development of the Erie Canal. Tempo and pitch are perfect. The word, 'fluid' comes to mind. The reader remains focused and interested--no eye sprints here. Before you know it, you're done. I purchaced this gem from the bargain book rack at Barnes and Noble . . . what a find. Highly recommended for anyone who loves to read about--and come to understand--early America. Thank you, Joel.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted July 22, 2010

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