The Magazine

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.”

Ferling’s method in revealing Washington’s conniving nature is to revisit the major events of his life and apply a highly skeptical interpretation to many of them, often blasting away at his reputation with an arsenal of loaded words. Washington enlisted in the 1750s to fight the French because he was “mad for glory.” The Frenchmen encountered by forces commanded by Washington were “murdered,” as well as “scalped [by Indians] and evidently left unburied by Washington.” Having “ordered a hostile act against a peaceful party,” Washington worried what would become of his career and faced “a monumental job of rehabilitation.” His reports about a disastrous campaign were “penned in a triumphant tone,” and he “never, then or later, admitted any errors on his part. .  .  . Not for the last time in his career, Washington pinned the blame on someone else.”

When Washington is not describing himself in a triumphant tone, he is cleverly enlisting surrogates to advance his fame. In a later ambush, Washington fails to “make public any of his accounts” of his brave actions, though “some of his correspondents—as he must have known would be the case—saw to their publication.” Any admirable behavior is little more than a calculated pose: “As always, Washington sought to hide what he thought were his own shortcomings—his lack of education, a volcanic temper, and vaulting ambition—and to exhibit what others would see as virtues, including dedication, industry, and fairness.” When he makes a statement, he is “claiming” something. When his fellow officers praise his courage, they have “an incentive for flattering him.” And on and on it goes.

This is a George Washington who tries to cheat his fellow soldiers out of valuable land awarded as a bounty for their services, and a self-absorbed farmer-politician who is bent on enjoying his “inordinate consumption” while the country is on the brink of revolution. “While major cities were afire with street protests against the [Stamp Act], and Patrick Henry fanned the flames in the House of Burgesses,” Ferling writes, “Washington’s diary entries read: ‘Sowed turneps .  .  . Began to seperate the Male from the Female hemp .  .  . Seperated my Ewes and Rams .  .  . Finish Sowing Wheat .  .  . Began to Pull the Seed Hemp.’” When the planter-aristocrat suddenly assumes a “fever pitch” in his denunciations of British tyranny, Ferling finds it hard to accept that “Washington truly believed British policy was unconstitutional and posed a grave threat to American liberties.” Ferling contends that it must have had something to do with Washington’s lifelong resentment of “America’s subservient status in the eyes of Britain’s ruling class.” 

Washington is a disaster as a military strategist, quick to fault others and hide his blunders. When he retires after the Revolutionary War, “Not every officer still in the army bothered to attend, nor did any who were out of the army but living nearby”—not even Alexander Hamilton. When Washington is urged to become president, his long delay in accepting is “largely theater by the consummate actor,” though “not entirely self-serving” since he shrewdly knows Americans are reluctant to admire power-hungry politicians and he needs their support to shore up the young country.

I suppose there is value to thrusting Washington into a new light, to reveal aspects seldom considered before. I found it an interesting, at times provocative, exercise, and Ferling knows his facts. Yet the Washington that emerges seems jarringly discordant. As the Founders well knew, men are motivated by self-interest, and even a man as great as George Washington was only human. Were all of the people who were fiercely loyal to this man effectively duped by a master actor who concealed a deficient character? Was his extraordinary courage and resolve during the revolution, keeping the dream of independence alive in the face of defeats, deprivation, and threats to his reputation, primarily a bid for fame and power? Was his sense of honor calculated, his love of freedom a ploy, his lifetime of devotion to the American cause a reflection of a lust for power and glory?

These are questions worth asking. But for what it’s worth, the Washington we know—bad teeth, bad temper, thin skin, chilly reserve and all—seems a vastly greater man than the “brilliant” politician who emerges in these pages.

Edward Achorn, deputy editorial page editor of the Providence Journal, is the author of the forthcoming Fifty-nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had (Smithsonian/HarperCollins).


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