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The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon

by John Ferling

Pub Date: June 1st, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-59691-465-0
Publisher: Bloomsbury

Historian Ferling (Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence, 2007, etc.) unveils the canny politician behind America’s first president.

In a revisionist view, the author argues that Washington, generally thought of as a selfless Olympian figure who was above politics, was actually “a master of political infighting…one of the very best politicians in American history.” Reminding readers of the president’s godlike status at his death in 1799—people wore black armbands for 30 days—Ferling examines the career of this soldier, legislator and president, finding him burned with ambition for renown and success from an early age. Born with a meager inheritance and determined to enter the planter aristocracy, Washington kowtowed to the rich and powerful for a chance at winning glory as commander of Virginia’s army in the French and Indian War, laying the groundwork for his postwar political ambitions. After 16 years in Virginia’s House of Burgesses, where he cultivated other assemblyman as supporters, he took command of the Continental Army at no salary, burnishing his reputation as a self-denying warrior and emerging after the War for Independence as America’s most powerful man. Ferling’s bright narrative offers considerable evidence of Washington’s savvy politicking in these later years. He sought a canal linking the Atlantic to the Ohio country that would cause his own lands to soar in value; after 1783 he twice declined to hold public office, knowing full well that the nation would demand that he leave the quiet of Mount Vernon to assume the presidency; as president he argued for locating the nation’s capital in an area where he owned property. 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. In fact, writes the author, Washington “was so good at politics that he alone of all of America’s public officials in the past two centuries succeeded in convincing others that he was not a politician.”

A fresh take on a monumental American.