by Locker Room contributor
Even if you?ve long realized that the famous ?cherry tree? story was a myth, your impression of our first president is likely based on a standard historical narrative that paints George Washington as an almost mythic, god-like character. (Yes, Jon Sanders, I realize that the case for Washington?s supernatural stature is stronger than the one made for the 44th president.)
According to that narrative, Washington was the selfless savior of a new nation who stood above politics and served his country without regard to personal gain for the better part of four decades.
John Ferling tries to separate the fact from the myth in his recent book The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon. Despite his use of the word ?genius? in the subtitle, Ferling frequently pans Washington, his political choices, and even his decision-making ability.
The following passage from Ferling?s final chapter offers a good example of the way in which the author regularly combines praise with criticism:
Good fortune alone does not account for Washington?s ascent. Indeed, he also had to overcome bad luck including a modest inheritance and the lack of a formal education. But Washington was madly ambitious and obsessed with recognition and renown. He was driven to learn what led to success, and once he discovered the secrets of achievement, he endlessly attempted to improve himself, courted patrons, endured incredible hardships, unblinkingly faced danger, and took incalculable risks, both physically and financially. Furthermore, not only was he ever vigilant for enemies, he grew to be uncannily accomplished in dealing with them. No one was better at self-promotion than Washington, though he did it in such a quiet, understated manner that few were aware of what he was up to. Principally, Washington quietly accentuated his attributes and concealed what he believed were his weaknesses.
What is most remarkable about Washington?s ascent is that he emerged an unsurpassed hero from two wars in which he committed dreadful ? even spectacular ? blunders and was personally responsible for only marginal successes.
Should Ferling?s work force us to reconsider our reverence for the ?Father Of Our Country?? Maybe.
The book certainly rebuts the notion that Washington was apolitical. It?s clear that he employed numerous rent-seeking schemes to benefit his personal land holdings, and it?s hard to ignore Ferling?s evidence that Washington mastered the strategy of finding scapegoats to take the blame for his military failures.
Still, this reader gets the sense that Ferling takes his case too far. The author has an annoying habit of playing mind reader and armchair psychologist. (Washington ?must have known? this; he ?had to have felt? that.)
Ferling also signals on several occasions that his primary beef with his subject was Washington?s refusal to endorse ? as plantation owner, military commander, legislator, Constitution maker, or president ? the egalitarian ideals that ?most? Americans associated with the Revolutionary War. If you take issue with Ferling?s assertion about the degree to which ?most? Americans wanted dramatic egalitarian changes in the late 18th century, the author?s case against Washington?s politics loses much of its steam.
Regardless of its faults, this book has enough good points to make it a worthwhile read for those who enjoy books about the Founders. For different perspectives on Washington, you might also try alternative titles from Richard Brookhiser (whether it?s straight biography or an examination of Washington?s leadership) and Paul Johnson.