Book Review: 'The Ascent of George Washington' by John Ferling

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By Marie Arana
Thursday, July 2, 2009; 2:53 PM


The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon

By John Ferling

Bloomsbury. 438 pp. $30

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.

"Much of the aura that surrounded Washington in life and death," writes Ferling -- his air of military brilliance, his wariness of power, his stoical nonpartisanship -- "was mythological." In truth, his battlefield fiascos were legion, his will to power fierce, his political instincts well-honed, even Machiavellian. But since supermen are as necessary to fledgling nations as they are to children, the legend that bloomed in his own time and hardened over the next two centuries gave us an intrepid general, a virtuous first president and, as biographer James Thomas Flexner put it, "the gentlest of history's great captains, one of the heroes of the human race."

According to Ferling, no one worked harder to make us believe this than George Washington himself. He was "mad for glory," success being a useful obsession for a wartime general or a presidential candidate. There is no doubt he was the right man for America at the right time, but as Ferling shows, he was also as calculating as he needed to be: shockingly capable of blaming others for his errors, so eager for power that he didn't hesitate to trample anyone who stood in his way. The picture that emerges here is harsher, yet more human, than any we've had before. It's as if a trusted historian with ample laurels were taking us aside, speaking to us like adults, letting us in on the very grown-up information that the father of our country may have been a great man in very many ways, but was also as cunning and as complicated as any modern-day politician.

Indeed, the country whose fortunes he oversaw has strong parallels to the one we currently live in. Struggling to recover from war, the United States faced a dangerously spiraling economy. The long-ignored social issue of the day -- slavery -- was a powder keg waiting to explode. Into this roiling scenario, the first president stepped, with an extraordinarily high approval rating.

But Washington was no surprise candidate. His road to glory had been carefully plotted. Since childhood, he had always wanted more than his family could give him. He longed to own vast farmlands and become a wealthy member of the planter aristocracy. Even as an adolescent, he lusted after his much older stepbrother's country house, a place called Mount Vernon. But when George's father died, the money died with him. There was none left for George's continuing education. The boy was quick, nevertheless, to see opportunities as they unfolded. Teaching himself surveying, he acquired 2,500 acres of land before he was 20. Taking a cue from his stepbrother, who had risen in society via the military, Washington approached the governor of Virginia and requested an appointment in King George II's army.

He cut an impressive figure as a military man. As Ferling describes it, he "made an early habit of standing ramrod straight, dressed well and fashionably, and learned to look others in the eye." He may not have been handsome, but he was striking, and he made use of his tall, imposing frame to tower over his peers. Playing up to his superiors, he painstakingly recast himself in their mold.

But with his first taste of combat came his first mistake. Carrying out a stealth attack on a small band of Frenchmen who were moving through Virginia from Ohio, Washington ordered his men to fire. A Seneca tribe joined in the butchery. Even as it became obvious that the traveling group was a peaceful one, he made no effort to stop the carnage. When time came to report the error, he pinned the blame on his translator.

It wasn't the last time he would make a colleague the scapegoat. A few years later, he decided to take on a large force of enemy raiders threatening a British supply post, but in the haze of dusk he didn't realize he was ordering an attack on a fellow detachment. Forty were killed in the friendly fire. Not only did he blame the commander of the other troops, Washington "took the lion's share of the credit" for having stopped the slaughter. That tendency to shunt the blame did not wane as he matured into a soldier with greater responsibilities; it emerged again and again when he was commander in chief of the Continental Army. He made sure that, in spite of all mishap and missed opportunity, every victory from the Carolinas to Yorktown was seen as his personal triumph.

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