- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 1, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE ASCENT OF GEORGE WASHINGTON: THE HIDDEN POLITICAL GENIUS OF AN AMERICAN ICON

By John Ferling

Bloomsbury Press, $30, 464 pages

Reviewed by James Srodes

Is there any whiter sepulcher than George Washington? I speak of the man, not the sterile obelisk that looms over the Mall. So many myths have been written and accepted about Washington that the man has vanished behind a stolid facade of distant dignity as wooden as his false teeth incorrectly have been said to be.

Even his most devoted contemporaries found Washington a mystery. Just how did he manage to do so much? English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray summed up the Washington conundrum best in his 1859 epic “The Virginians” when he observed, “It was strange, that in a savage forest of Pennsylvania, a young Virginian officer should fire a shot, and waken up a war which was to last for 60 years, which was to cover his own country and pass into Europe, to cost France her American colonies, to sever ours from us, and create the great Western republic; to rage over the Old World when extinguished in the New; and, of all the myriads engaged in that vast contest, to leave the prize of the greatest fame with him who struck the first blow!”

It certainly is an exaggeration to credit Washington and his ambush of a French patrol in 1754 with the era of violence, revolution and upheaval that was to end with Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, but Thackeray was right to find the man’s star-crossed career both strange and ironic.

John Ferling, the eminent Revolutionary historian, in this thoroughly researched and very well-written study, offers us two compelling explanations to Thackeray’s puzzlement. First, Washington, as the title suggests, was a political genius who took great pains to invent a persona fit to pursue the greatness he so hotly desired. While plenty of other men have sought the heights of personal renown, Washington’s true greatness, the author concludes, lies in his ability to couple his own burning ambitions with an equal desire to make a great nation.

As Mr. Ferling sets the story, Washington had a fairly prosaic start in life and could have remained a modestly prosperous farmer of little note. He was the son of a second marriage; his father was a successful planter and political figure; his elder half-brother, the heir, had been a well-regarded soldier in the earlier wars of the century. Even when Washington came into his inheritance, real economic advancement depended on marriage to a wealthy widow, and he quickly burned through her fortune as well as his own.

Washington always would be a farmer, but from his earliest years as a young man, he also tied his rising fortune to the universally intense hunger for land speculation that gripped early Colonists of all classes. He became an adept and adventurous land surveyor and through that latched onto a military career that Mr. Ferling broadly hints enabled him to play a role in the bid by leading Virginian political figures to control westward expansion into the Ohio Valley.

Viewed in that light, Washington’s disastrous ambush of the French patrol, which ended in his surrender at Fort Necessity in 1754, and his less than glorious participation in the disastrous rout of Gen. Edward Braddock’s campaign in the same area a year later were both in aid of a land-development scheme directed by the powers in Williamsburg.

Again, in 1757, when the British sent another army to clear the French from Fort Duquesne, Washington raised suspicions about his integrity by unsuccessfully lobbying the commander to use Braddock’s old road, where he and other Virginians had land options, instead of a more northerly route. Indeed, just last year, the museum at Fort Necessity took possession of a deed document by which Washington had purchased the Great Meadows site of the surrendered fortifications that adjoined the Braddock road.

Still, this book makes clear that while Washington made mistakes, he learned from them. He ended what we call the French and Indian War in 1757 as a colonel with the formal praise of his superiors. A year later, he won an expensive election campaign to the House of Burgesses and began his formal career as a politician. For the next 18 years, he fashioned a reputation of deliberate soundness that was long on good judgment and short on the flowery oratory in which many of his colleagues reveled. Through it all, however, he maintained the carefully constructed image of having been the leading military man of his day, despite the private criticism of some of his compatriots.

So in 1775, when he was one of five Virginians selected to attend the Continental Congress in Philadelphia after hostilities had erupted, he packed a new militia uniform in his bags and saw to it that friends managed to draft him into the job he wanted, as commander of the still-organizing Continental Army. He always had known that the quickest path to glory was through soldiering and with his reputation; now there was no one to deny him the chance.

Despite what his historical reputation has become over the centuries, Washington was not a master commander, Mr. Ferling argues persuasively. There were more successful generals — Horatio Gates at Saratoga, Nathaniel Green in his campaign in the Carolinas — but Washington held the army together through personal bravery under fire and adroit politicking that dragged a disorganized Congress to its task of supplying war materials and that checkmated the various critics and plotters against him within his own officer corps.

The second important character trait that Mr. Ferling points out is Washington’s ability to capitalize on good luck. He had, after all, nothing to do with the French sending Jean-Baptiste de Rochambeau and his army to America, or Francois-Joseph De Grasse and the French fleet from the Caribbean into the Chesapeake Bay. However, he was adroit enough to force-march the combined allied army away from its stalemate outside New York all the way to Yorktown and ultimate victory. So too with his presidency, Washington managed to harness the genius of Alexander Hamilton’s invention of a truly national economy and financial system and to hold potential rivals such as the jealous John Adams and the utopian Thomas Jefferson in check long enough to get the nation up and running. It takes a special kind of political genius to do all that and appear to remain a disinterested patriot who is above the common fray of life.

As Mr. Ferling sums up, “Much of the aura that surrounded Washington in life and death — in particular the perception of his masterful generalship, reluctance to hold power, and lofty disinterestedness on partisan issues — was mythological. But nation builders know that legendary heroes and mythical tales are essential for the creation and maintenance of their realm. Otherwise, the very idea of nationhood is likely to seem to many to be only a delusion.”

This highly readable portrayal of just how Washington went about creating that myth about himself makes him considerably more approachable and at the same time even more admirable.

James Srodes’ latest book is “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father.”

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