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George the First

It’s not easy to demean the Man from Mount Vernon.

Mar 1, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 23 • By EDWARD ACHORN
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The Ascent
of George Washington

George the First

The Hidden Political Genius
 of an American Icon
by John E. Ferling
Bloomsbury, 464 pp., $30

Books about Abraham Lincoln cascade off the presses, with no sign of abating, exploring every element of the man you could think of: his mental problems, his law career, his campaigns, his family, his bumptious cabinet, his personal secretaries, each one of his famous speeches, his summer home, his sex life, his brushes with Walt Whitman. While our obsessive interest in this complicated man reflects an admiration for his piercing intellect, his magnificent prose, and sympathy for human frailty in the midst of the Civil War, we seem to love Lincoln most because we find him a recognizable fellow human being, a man who came from nothing, suffered the scorn of his superiors, failed often, worried much, endured an impossible wife, and masked his pain with jokes and rural parables.

The only president of his stature—if not greater—is, by comparison, a publishing dud. Unlike Lincoln, George Washington could never be deemed one of us: He spent his whole life being bigger and better than his fellow man, imposing a chilly distance that the most fervent admiration of his countrymen has never been able to warm. The prospects that he might seem human dimmed considerably when Martha Washington destroyed his letters to her after his death.

He comes down to us as a stuffy, upright man with bad teeth, in sore need of being whipped up into something more exciting. His earliest biographer, a former aide named David Humphreys, seemed so dumbstruck by the great man that he produced an absurdly brief volume that featured, bizarrely, only two paragraphs on Washington’s role in the revolution. His most famous biographer, Parson Weems, had to inject his account with colorful inventions, such as Washington’s prayer at Valley Forge and his boyhood confrontation with a cherry tree. 

Yet Washington is the essential American, the man above all others to whom we owe our country. And he is someone we ought to know. For decades, writers have striven to inject some blood into the marble. H. L. Mencken, for one, thought the hagiographers, from the general’s generation on down, had it all wrong: 

He was the Rockefeller of his time, the richest man in the United States, a promoter of stock companies, a land-grabber, an exploiter of mines and timber. He was a bitter opponent of foreign alliances, and denounced their evils in harsh, specific terms. He had a liking for all forthright and pugnacious men, and a contempt for lawyers, schoolmasters and all other such obscurantists. He was not pious. He drank whisky whenever he felt chilly, and kept a jug of it handy. He knew far more profanity than Scripture, and used and enjoyed it more. He had no belief in the infallible wisdom of the common people, but regarded them as inflammatory dolts, and tried to save the republic from them.

Modern biographers, in perhaps less gaudy language, have similarly striven to make him a recognizable human being, as Joseph J. Ellis memorably did in His Excellency (2004), capturing Washington’s passion and ambition without ignoring his incomparable courage and endurance.

Now, John Ferling tries to go one step further by presenting Washington, not without expressing admiration, as a calculating, duplicitous, at times devious and self-serving political genius—“a master of persuasion, manipulation, and deniability,” as the dust jacket puts it, rather than the strikingly honorable man we know.

“Most of Washington’s contemporaries thought him uniquely above politics, ‘disinterested,’ as they put it, meaning that he made decisions judiciously, letting the chips fall where they may without regard to sectional, provincial, or personal interest,” Ferling writes. In truth, “George 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.”

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