Saturday, April 04, 2009

Book Review: "The Ascent of George Washington"

When I started John Ferling's The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon (forthcoming, Bloomsbury) I thought how on earth can anyone have anything new to say about George Washington as politician? But I'm happy to say that the book is worth the time, since Ferling manages to package his subject in a different way than most of the conventional Washington biographies do.

Ferling's major argument here is that Washington was a tremendously skilled political actor, who managed throughout his career to maneuver himself into optimal circumstances (without, for the most part, getting his hands dirty in the process). Ferling calls Washington a "canny political infighter - a master of persuasion, manipulation, and deniability," and uses the book to provide numerous examples of how Washington exercised those skills to his advantage. Among the situations Ferling examines closely are Washington's experiences during the French & Indian War; his handling of the Conway Cabal and of the Newburgh Conspiracy; and the partisan pressures of the 1790s.

Throughout his career, Ferling argues, Washington looked to improve his own reputation and standing (often at the expenses of others) in quiet but powerful ways, deploying surrogates, scapegoating his rivals, and deftly keeping himself on top of the political, military and economic heap by any means necessary. But the point isn't to diminish Washington's reputation, Ferling writes, it's to recognize that such actions were exactly what was necessary to hold the United States together during the dark days of the Revolution and keep the nation going following ratification of the Constitution.

Well-written and researched, with excellent endnotes. A fine book.

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