“The Ascent of George Washington” is prolific author John Ferling’s tenth book (of eleven thus far) and was published in 2009. He is a professor emeritus of history and has written extensively on the revolutionary era as well as many of those who figured so prominently in its history.
The somewhat contentious tone of his book is quickly established when Ferling points out that he fundamentally disagrees with the prevailing view of our first president as a “nonpolitical” super-hero who sought to rise above the fray as president. Instead, he portrays Washington as an aggressively self-interested, highly political figure who essentially did whatever he had to in order to “get ahead.”
Ferling’s anti-hero cadence remains steady throughout the book, but is not entirely without merit. It is undeniable that Washington energetically took advantage of most of the opportunities that destiny presented and, like many successful individuals, often made his own luck. Among other things, he assiduously cultivated relationships as a youngster with people of higher social class and influence, cajoled colonial politicians into providing him a military mission though he had no real experience, and worked tenaciously to find himself in the right places when important moments in history were likely to be made.
But to most of us, those are not the signs of a partisan and narcissistic egomaniac. They are the footprints of a highly-motivated and ambitious (though often self-doubting) individual who wished to rise above his underwhelming, under-educated childhood to earn the respect of his community and, eventually, leave a positive imprint on history.
Much of the time I found myself frustrated by Ferling’s insistence on relentlessly pursuing a thesis that seemed overdone. Although I appreciated his effort to uncover and pursue a new “twist” on Washington’s life, too often it seemed he either had a genuine personal dislike of Washington, or was working a bit too hard to create a conspiracy where there was hardly a crime.
On the other hand, I did find some of Ferling’s “evidence” to be reasonable, if one-sided and unbalanced. We are all – great historical figures included – composed of a complex amalgam of strengths and weaknesses. How someone projects one’s strengths while disguising or compensating for deficiencies can be the difference between making history and being forgotten altogether. Washington obviously knew this well, but Ferling sees a man who can only be viewed through a glass half-empty.
Ferling’s rhetoric eased somewhat in his closing remarks. In the final pages he delineated a number of conclusions which are (ironically) fairly consistent with those of other historians. Indeed, if you were to begin reading Ferling’s book with his final chapter, you might well find little with which to disagree.
Nonetheless, the overarching mood that pervades “The Ascent of George Washington” is that of a book authored by someone with an ax to grind; John Adams himself could hardly have been more delighted by much of what Ferling wrote. However, I do admire the book for what it did not intend to do: cover Washington’s life comprehensively from start to finish. This would have been the fourth such book for me in a month, and it was refreshing to read something a bit different and provocative.
Overall, Ferling’s book on Washington (which he goes out of his way to say is not a biography, as it does not chronicle his relationship with his family, his personal interests, etc.) seems to fall slightly short of its own goal. It tries too hard to be different, and seems to force facts and circumstances into slightly odd shapes at times in order to fit the desired conclusion. As a second or third book to read on Washington, Ferling’s work is entirely appropriate. But for someone intending to read just one book on our first president, “The Ascent of George Washington” doesn’t seem to be quite what the doctor ordered.
Overall rating: 3 stars