American history, biographies, book reviews, George Washington, John Ferling, presidential biographies, Presidents
“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
J. Gary Ellison said:
I appreciate this. Ferling’s is my first bio on Washington, so after the first chapter, I found your review which confirms my suspicion: this book is more about Ferling’s thesis about Washington than it is about Washington himself. In other words, everything is seen from this particular angle. As there are other bios of Washington, Ferling fills a niche that was apparently missing, but his may not be the best one to read first.
Ellis Velasquez said:
I have been looking for biographies on the first President of the United States, this is one I shall look for. It is difficult to find one that is objective in their presentation of George Washington or even other leaders. Will have add this later along with the other books I have by Chernow and Marshall.
Ron Tenney said:
Thank you for your review. As I was reading this, it dawned on me that this is the same author of the book, “Almost a Miracle, The American Victory in the War of Independence”. I have read a bit on both Washington as well as the Revolutionary War. So many of the conclusions Ferling draws are in sharp contrast with other historians. And yes, in each that stood out to me, Washington is diminished in the telling of the story as well as the conclusions drawn. The are no “objective histories” since all are colored by the writer, but when the bias is so obvious, it is worthwhile to get a broader view. In a similar vein, Thomas Fleming is so rabidly pro-Washington in contrast to other Founders, that he must be read with other authors in view to balance the story (based on two of his books that I have read.)
Thanks again for these resources and the time and talent you have dedicated to this project.
Thank you for your comment! Ironically, while this biography of Washington was one of my *least* favorite bios of the 1st president, Ferling’s biography of John Adams was my favorite of the 2nd president. I didn’t have any idea that would be the case, of course, when I was reading “The Ascent of George Washington”…
I think this review is too harsh on Ferling. I agree that the author has “an axe to grind,” but I think that his work stems not from a dislike of Washington. I think Ferling is unsatisfied with Washington scholarship and biography which lean toward hagiography and saw writing a book that emphasized the fallible, human side of our first president was a necessary countermeasure.
I read this book after reading Chernow which I thought was a very well written story, but clearly had extreme biases towards Hamilton and Federalism while downplaying Washington’s personal faults. The number of times that it’s mentioned that Washington had a “rare” outburst of anger or other showing of a negative trait gets downright laughable. I think Chernow’s book is a good example of the standard way that Washington is treated.
I can certainly understand why his contrarian tone can take away from the enjoyment of reading this book for some, but most of the points that Ferling makes are very valid and better interpretations of the man and his psychology are not only valid, but needed when books claim not be hagiography before giving Washington a positive interpretation at every turn.
I particularly liked the sections about Washington subtly working towards military leadership by wearing his uniform to congress, about his political removal of all his rival generals (Charles Lee gets an especially raw treatment from what I’ve read in the most detailed book on Monmouth, Fatal Sunday by Lender and Stone), about how he took credit for the French plan at Yorktown and about how Washington fell so deeply under Hamilton’s influence that he was willing to raise an army to attack settlers in western Pennsylvania for revolting against a tax that disproportionately effected them and help Hamilton undermine John Adams during the Quasi-War.