Amy's Reviews > The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon

The Ascent of George Washington by John Ferling
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Jul 15, 09

bookshelves: first-reads, history-geography, read-in-2009
Read in July, 2009

An ARC from the GoodReads FirstReads program

This was a concise review of American history, although I'm not sure how reliable it is. The author clearly intends to portray a different side to George Washington, the 'hidden political' side.

In the preface, I came across a word I wasn't familiar with - hagiography. Turns out, this is the study of holy people. Ferling contends that most biographers treat George Washington as something of a saint, allowing some myths about his life to linger. He contends that Washington was a more complex man, and more politically talented, than he is usually portrayed.

Ferling starts with Washington as a young man. He paints a picture of a man who takes action to hide his faults, while subtly highlighting his virtues. The Washington he portrays is not really modest, just very smart and charismatic. He also intentionally studies those around him, in order to adopt the behavior most likely to lead to his personal advancement. In his early business career, he was mostly interested in his own monetary gain. One particular thing that bothered me was the way he took advantage of the enlisted men. This is as described by the author, to the best of my recollection. A parcel of land in the west was to be set aside as a reward for military service - the author contends that it was mainly for those who enlisted. Washington successfully lobbied so that large parcels were reserved for officers, with much smaller parcels for enlisted. Even worse, he sent his own survey team out to mark the prime parcels. As the land was distributed, he convinced some men to sell prime land to him, convincing them it was worthless.

As a general, Ferling claims Washington was a bumbling disaster, better able to discredit his fellow officers vying for command than able to plan and execute military strategy. His reputation is a result of luck and a conscious effort by congress to attempt to maintain the public's faith in a war leader. Ferling claims he was obsessed with attempting to retake New York, and only by luck (in the form of a French advisor) did he end up victorious at Yorktown.

After being elected president, Washington put Hamilton in charge of treasury. Ferling gives them both credit with establishing the firm financial foundations of the new country. Although commonly believed to be apolitical, Ferling contends that Washington was a firm Federalist throughout his life.

This is a good time to explain how I came to read this book.
My history education is full of gaping holes. I have almost no formal world history education. I had a high school history class which went in depth into the United States history through the Civil War. And I took one history class in college which also covered early United States history.

In that college class, we read a biography of George Washington -
Washington The Indispensable Man. This was the first historical biography I had read, and I was amazed at how much I enjoyed it and how easy it was to read. (I normally have a hard time with non-fiction.)

So when I saw this John Ferling book listed on the FirstReads page, I signed up because of my vague but fond remembrance of the other George Washington book. And wouldn't you know it, I won.

I am probably not the right audience for this book. Someone with a stronger background in history (preferably from multiple original sources) would be better able to rate this book. My problem is that the author is using a persuasive tone. He's trying to sell his idea of George Washington as a political genius. I just don't have sufficient knowledge to accurately judge the author's portrayal of Washington.

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Reading Progress

06/02/2009 page 64
14.61% "Washington the Burgess - so far, I don't like the Washington portrayed"
06/21/2009 page 104
23.74% "Just starting the revolutionary war-major character change. Author attributes to finally having a cause he can believe in."
07/09/2009 page 438
100.0% "Finally finished!"
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