The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon

By Morrison, Jeffry H. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon


Morrison, Jeffry H., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon * John Ferling * New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009 * xxiv, 437 pp. * $30

After meeting George Washington for the first time in 1775, Abigail Adams blurted out lines from Dryden to her husband John: "Mark his majestic fabric! He's a temple / Sacred by birth, and built by hands divine / His soul's the deity that lodges there. / Nor is the pile unworthy of the god." Abigail was one of the first to deify Washington, and John Ferling is one of the latest to humanize him. His Ascent of George Washington is, if not quite a debunking of the Indispensable Man, at least an attempt to show us "the real Washington." That real Washington's soul was marked, not by godlike disinterestedness, but by an emphatically human "overweening" ambition (p. 6). Although some may have greatness thrust upon them, Washington made himself indispensable - and part of his "genius" lay, according to the author, in his ability to wrap his lust for power in a cloak of apparent selflessness.

Americans of Washington's day liked their heroes selfless, and they admired ancients like Cato, Cincinnatus, and Moses - all of whom they compared to the Father of His Country. Yet, they might not have done so, or at least not unreservedly, had they read Professor Ferling's psychological and political biography. The Washington who emerges from the nearly four hundred pages of well-crafted narrative is a man who became first in the hearts of his countrymen by looking out for Number One. He was also, in direct contrast to the conventional portraits of him, intensely partisan and "a highly political individual, one of the very best politicians in American history" (p. xxi). Possessed of a range of virtues - his character and abilities elevated and made him "the proper choice" to command the Continental army Washington was nevertheless supremely gifted at political intrigue, and he used that gift for self-advancement (p. 369). In fact there are times when he sounds like a man nearly unhinged: the "real" Washington "burned with ambition ... for renown, power, wealth, and success," "hungered for renown on a grand stage," "basked in the adulation of his countrymen," and was "madly ambitious and obsessed with recognition and renown" (pp. 6, 108, 255, 368). Mad and obsessed ambition was no hallmark of republican virtue to Americans in the founding era; thus Washington's efforts at concealing his craving for renown and his partisanship. …

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