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Ascent Of George Washington

by John Ferling
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Product Details

  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Press
  • Publishing date: 02/06/2009
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 9781596914650
  • ISBN: 1596914653


Bestselling historian John Ferling draws on his unsurpassed knowledge of the Founding Fathers to provide a fresh and provocative new portrait of the greatest of them all, George Washington.

Even compared to his fellow founders, George Washington stands tall. Our first president has long been considered a stoic hero, holding himself above the rough-and-tumble politics of his day. Now John Ferling peers behind that image, carefully burnished by Washington himself, to show us a leader who was not only not above politics, but a canny infighter?a master of persuasion, manipulation, and deniability.

In the War of Independence, Washington used his skills to steer the Continental Army through crises that would have broken less determined men; he squeezed out rival generals and defused dissent from those below him. Ending the war as a national hero, Washington ?allowed” himself to be pressed into the presidency, guiding the nation with the same brilliantly maintained pose of selfless public interest. In short, Washington deftly screened a burning ambition behind his image of republican virtue?but that image, maintained not without cost, made him just the leader the overmatched army, and then the shaky young nation, desperately needed.

Ferling argues that not only was Washington one of America’s most adroit politicians?the proof of his genius is that he is no longer thought of as a politician at all.
John Ferling is a professor emeritus of history at the State University of West Georgia. A leading authority on American Revolutionary history, he is the author of seven books, including Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, The First of Men: A Life of George Washington, and the award-winning A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic. His most recent work, Almost a Miracle, was a history bestseller.
Our first president has long been painted as a stoic figure who rose above the rough-and-tumble politics of his era. The Ascent of George Washington peers behind that image?one carefully burnished by Washington himself?to reveal a leader who was not only not above politics, but a master manipulator adept in the arts of persuasion, leverage, and deniability.
During the Revolution, Washington used his skills to steer the Continental Army through crises that would have broken less determined men; at the same time, he ruthlessly froze out rival generals and shrewdly defused dissent from those below him. Ending the war as a national hero, Washington "allowed" himself to be pressed into service as chief executive, and guided the nation with the same brilliantly maintained pose of selfless public interest.
In short, Washington deftly screened burning ambition behind an image of republican virtue?but that image made him just the leader that an overmatched army, and a shaky young nation, desperately needed. As Ferling reveals, the proof of Washington's political genius lies in the fact that he is no longer thought of as a politician at all. The Ascent of George Washington gives us Washington as we have never seen him before.
?Once in a while a book comes along to remind us that history has no gods, that the past is less fossil than textbooks suggest and America more vibrant than a mere list of principles. John Ferling's Ascent of George Washington is just such a book: a fresh, clear-eyed portrait of the full-blooded political animal that was George Washington . . . In John Ferling’s eminently readable, landmark interpretation, we cannot help but marvel at the man.”?Marie Arana, The Washington Post
?Once in a while a book comes along to remind us that history has no gods, that the past is less fossil than textbooks suggest and America more vibrant than a mere list of principles. John Ferling's Ascent of George Washington is just such a book: a fresh, clear-eyed portrait of the full-blooded political animal that was George Washington . . . In John Ferling’s eminently readable, landmark interpretation, we cannot help but marvel at the man.”?Marie Arana, The Washington Post

?Never questioning Washington’s greatness, Ferling insists that seeing him as an artful self-promoter and master politician only enhances his reputation as an adept leader who knew exactly what he was doing . . . a fresh take on a monumental American.”?Kirkus Reviews

?Sensing that such biographers as James Flexner and Joseph Ellis have accepted the above-politics thesis, Ferling inspects the evidence of Washington’s political activities . . . While illustrating the substance behind Washington’s image as the indispensable man, Ferling pointedly grounds that image in the political soil from which it sprang.”?Booklist

?Ferling has done his research and offers some new insights . . . Recommended for readers interested in taking a fresh look at Washington's political life.”?Library Journal

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    From Amazon

    I must admit to being disappointed in this book, it is a worthy effort but really adds little to our overall knowledge of George Washington. However, I allow 4-stars for the book because it is the first one I have encountered in 40-plus years to continually re-enforce the fact that George Washington was consciously upwardly mobile in behavior and desire from early age. It continued to guide his actions up through his presidency. The book offers many primary writings from Washington as aid in that attempt. Most of the other political people of that time we've come to know acted very similar, with Washington being only one among many opportunists. Anyone reading much on Washington will be aware of this fact, but Professor Ferling is one of few to devote an entire book to that element in Washington's personality. Not a biography at all the book does offer elements of Washington's military and political life. I still prefer my four volumes by Flexner and a single volume by Richard Norton Smith for in depth coverage of George Washington and his era. While still allowing 4-stars for Ferling's tenacity and attempt his is in many ways only a restating of facts that can be culled from the above mentioned volumes, among several others including one by Willard Sterne Randall. For anyone not having read a great deal Ferling's book on Washington might suffice, however, too much of Washington falls through the cracks for this book to ever become a standard work. Semper Fi.

  • Maybe it was luck, but America was the beneficiary
    From Amazon

    This book is a very detailed look at the extensive efforts of George Washington and his associates - the well-connected, colleagues, and subordinates - to enhance and preserve his reputation and various positions beginning when he was in his early twenties as the leader of a Virginia regiment in opposition to the French and Indians in the 1750s, continuing twenty years later as the commander of American forces in the Revolutionary War, and finally in his national political phase from the Constitutional Convention through his two terms as the first President of the US. The author demolishes the notion held in some quarters that Washington was "disinterested" in advancing his personal situation and standing, that he served merely at the pleasure of the people, more than willing to step down at a moment's notice. The author uses Washington's abundant correspondence and that of relevant persons, as well as other documents such as newspapers, to clearly establish that Washington was not "above the fray" when it came to countering even the slightest hint that he had not performed to the highest standards in his various undertakings or, in some cases, orchestrating personal gain. The author quickly establishes that Washington was extraordinarily ambitious, in terms of both wealth accumulation and social standing. Lacking a good education and a sizeable inheritance due to his father's premature death, Washington saw that military service, of course as an officer, using the example of his half-brother Larry, would be his best chance of achieving the status he sought. Washington, aided by an imposing, even regal, physical presence, unfailingly followed the accepted standards of dress and behavior appropriate for a Virginia aristocrat. Holding great swaths of land for producing cash crops and for speculation was part of being an aristocrat in colonial society; using his experiences as a teenage surveyor and from his military campaigns, he purchased, and in some cases finagled, numerous western (Ohio) tracts of land throughout his lifetime. His ambition never really dimmed; in middle-age, his public "reluctance" to serve in the highest positions was, if not a ploy, certainly overwhelmed by his need to be the preeminent man, by reputation, in American society. It seems evident that Washington's ambition exceeded his talent, certainly his experience. He had absolutely no training as a military man when he cajoled his way into leadership positions in the Virginia militia. Unfortunately for the men under his command, his military efforts on the frontier were one failure after another: untenable strategies resulted in devastating defeats, massacring a peace-seeking group, opening fire on friendly forces, and the like. But Washington, using connections and personal lobbying and displaying little reluctance to misconstrue the truth of what happened and to shift blame onto the unsuspecting, managed to preserve his positions and even enhance his reputation as the top military man in Virginia. Washington's alleged reluctance to assume command of the Continental army is belied by his arrival at the Second Continental Congress in May, 1775, with a new military uniform in his trunk. While his contemporaries held that Washington had no equal as a military man, as the author shows in some detail, he had gained little in military ability since his last service. His obsession with defending New York nearly got his entire army destroyed early in the War. His daring attacks on British encampments in New Jersey in late Dec, 1776, were followed up by inept engagements at Brandywine and Germantown as the British proceeded to march into Philadelphia in 1777. His ill-advised strategies, in contrast to the resounding victory of Gen. Gates at Saratoga, necessitated a full bore effort to control Congressional perceptions, including the denigration of critics and rivals, to cut off any chance of a replacement movement. Washington and his supporters overwhelmed his challengers; by mid-War, he was seen as indispensable to American success. The myopia when it came to Washington was such that his reputation even survived his fixation on invading New York City, which nearly cost the execution of the realization by the French that the British army could be trapped on a peninsula near Yorktown, Virginia. The resulting British surrender was a "miracle" that Washington nearly squashed. Beyond Washington's battlefield shortcomings, he is given a good deal of credit by the author for his organizational and attention to detail capabilities, as well as an ability to inspire his soldiers. While clearly Washington was adept at what is today called political lobbying, his politics also involved holding political office. He evinced little interest in political issues during his many terms in the Virginia House of Burgesses before the War, but after the War he aligned himself with the so-called nationalists, including Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. They actively sought to create a strong national government capable of raising revenue, facilitating trade, and dealing with hostile forces, as the British, Spanish, and Indians continued to be. Beyond that, they wanted to check the democratic excesses of state legislatures that, controlled by middling folk, provided for debt relief and sought to shift tax burdens to the wealthy. The fact that Washington was not apolitical in that contentious decade is clearly shown by his being a member, though largely silent, of the Constitutional Convention that created a strong national state with structural elements designed to impede democratic influence which he enthusiastically supported. Washington's presidency was kingly, by any measure. His formality in his dress, accoutrements, social affairs, and manner of conducting government business was not much distinguished from the courts of Europe. His distance from people was a calculated effort to generate a certain mystique, even reverence for his office and person. Much to his chagrin, his two terms were contentious on both the domestic and international fronts. He basically stood aside as Hamilton implemented his British-like program of funding of the national debt, assuming state debts, and establishing a national bank over the strenuous objections of the agrarian oriented Jeffersonians. Washington's foreign policies clearly favored the British, despite British anti-Americanism, which fueled the formation of pro-French Democratic-Republican societies. The adopted reserve of Washington evaporated in his vehement denouncement of these democratic groups as traitorous. His inability to control them was undoubtedly most frustrating. It is accurate to claim that Washington was not usually openly partisan, but he did adhere strictly to Federalist ideas. His leaving office in 1796 may well have prevented his strong anti-republicanism stance from being more exposed, thereby harming his reputation. One need only look at John Adams' flirtation with repression in the passage of the Sedition Act of 1798 to appreciate how anti-democratic sentiments can damage one's long-term standing. The author attributes a great deal of luck to the possibilities of a Washington even appearing on the colonial scene. His age, his driven personality and commanding presence, his good fortune to survive battles, the uniqueness of the colonial situation - all of these combined to facilitate this unique person coming to the fore. Though unmentioned by the author, the slow and limited communications in that era undoubtedly helped to limit the quick spread of detrimental news. In the modern era, one could wonder if Washington would have survived the instant scrutiny that his first western military assignment would have generated. This book is not a biography of Washington, per se. While the author covers the main public events of Washington's life in sufficient detail, the focus in this book is on his ability, aided by others, to reconstruct the reality of those events in a manner favorable to him. Although the book delves into the psychology of Washington, it is not full blown treatment of his personality. Because the manipulative and self-delusional aspects of his personality are emphasized, one is left with an incomplete, if not skewed, view of Washington. Conspicuously absent from the book is the involvement of his wife Martha in his various travails. Despite the rather critical tone of the book towards Washington, the author does not suggest that Washington was not the right man for the jobs that he undertook in helping to move America to independence and establish a working national government. There was an unmatched strength in Washington that inspired confidence when possibilities looked bleak for the Americans. In that era, who could possibly have been a more important symbol to a society and a fledgling nation? At this juncture in history, a realistic examination of Washington is entirely appropriate; his immense contributions to the founding of the US are not diminished. Was Washington a political genius? Despite the title of the book, it's doubtful that is the author's claim. It can be said that he parlayed an imposing physicality and an ambitious personality with an ability to attract and persuade others in trying times into a one-of-a-kind stature in American history. Maybe it was luck, but America was the beneficiary.

  • Nicely done
    From Amazon

    Very different take on GW, shows him as a struggling military commander, a man seeking wealth and status, touchy on matters of honor, etc. Not the marble man of unblemmished virtue. We need an account like this.

  • A Great review of an amazing life
    From Amazon

    This book has been reviewed elsewhere as an intimate portrait of how this countrys' first president was able to do what he did. If this was the mission, I would say it succeeded. The Mythology of the nations founding father is that George Washington bravely led the US Army, and leave when the battle is over, only to be called back in a few years time to take the presidency unopposed. What is left out of that narrative is any mention of how Washington governed, and how he actually got to his positions, usually with Washington working some important person in order to land his position. This book provides the answer. I recommend it.

  • A Descending or even Dissenting view of a Founding Father?
    From Amazon

    Historian John Ferling has for many years studied, taught, and written about the American Revolutionary War and our Founding Fathers. His work examines those critical questions relating to how the United States came to be "free and independent" and what it was about these men that made that outcome possible. This is not his first book about George Washington and it is not a biography, but it reflects a lifetime of research and thoughtful study of a man who seems more of "the marble man" to most Americans than even Robert E. Lee (with whom Washington has often been linked by the latter's admirers). That Professor Ferling is choosing to try and break through the stonework that encases our First President and Commander-in-Chief to expose the real George Washington is a laudatory endeavor, though it can make this work a bit of a rough go for readers more accustomed to the traditional rather more reverential treatment of our principal founding father. As a historian, such an iconoclastic approach to historical figures is neither new nor at all unwelcome and in fact falls into a strong American academic tradition. In recent decades we have been treated to works exploring the many facets of George Washington and his military and political career, including Washington as spymaster and intelligence chief, or a young and overly enthusiastic military-diplomat on the North American frontier, or as the initiator of a genocidal race war against Native Americans. In this work, the author brings together many, if not all, of the various charges, complaints, and allegations that have been leveled against Washington during his lifetime and since his death. As one reads through the book, it seems as if Ferling has accused Washington of being ambitious, boastful, conniving, duplicitous, egotistical, facile, limited, manipulative, naïve, opportunistic, self-promoting, virtual fraud and adventurer, among other faults he identifies in our first Commander-in-Chief and first President. This book is a warts and all telling of how young Master Washington of Virginia became General and President G. (drum roll, a la "1776") Washington. As a longtime student of the American Civil War, for example, I know that the re-examination of the character, performance, and reputations of such iconic figures as Robert E. Lee and his "warhorse" Longstreet are the meat and potatoes of much of what is written today about that conflict and its most prominent figures. This parallel comes to mind in part because the one real fault I find with Dr. Ferling's work is the comparative inadequacy of the supporting evidence he sometimes brings to the discussion. Criticisms of Lee, Longstreet, George McClellan, and others seem especially awash with cited reports, letters, diaries, and other documentation compared to the relatively thin gruel offered by Dr. Ferling in support of some of the charges he levels in this work. In part this reflects the relative volume of surviving records relating to these two conflicts. The Union Army and in particular the Army of the Potomac were marvels of early modern bureaucracy, turning out literally tons of paper records, reports, etc. that historians now pore over. George Washington's Continental Army, run principally by its Commander-in-Chief, some supporting general officers in positions such as Quartermaster General and Inspector General, and a handful of aides and clerks, produced far fewer surviving records. As a result, it is admittedly more difficult to expose a general who cites the failures of others to cover up his own errors of judgment or leadership. But even knowing this, I still found myself disappointed that Professor Ferling offered such little material evidence to support some of his statements regarding Washington's faults and failings. This quibble aside, there is a lot of good material here which Professor Ferling presents in a readable and interesting style. Whether you agree with Dr. Ferling's work or not, this will be a book you will have to read to be fully informed about our First President and about the times and trials through which he, his colleagues and rivals, and our nation passed in order to emerge "free and independent."

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