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In all history few men who possessed unassailable power have used that power so gently and self-effacingly for what their best instincts told them was the welfare of their neighbors and all mankind… James Thomas Flexner

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If you look at the Great Seal of the Confederate States of America there is, at its center, a man on horseback – that man is George Washington whom George III, after his defeat, had referred to as the greatest man of the age. This has certainly been the received public opinion of our first president since our founding and there is so much that argues in favor of the man who knew that he walked on untrodden ground, There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent and had no other view than to promote the public good, and am unambitious of honors not founded in the approbation of my Country and hoped to  possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.

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While historians and future aspirants to liberty have found, and continue to find, so much of worth in the man his contemporaries from Charles Lee – a rival for command – found him, That dark, designing, sordid, ambitious, vain, proud, arrogant and vindictive knave, to his vice-president, John Adams, who thought, That Washington was not a scholar is certain. That he is too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his station is equally beyond dispute, to his fellow Virginian and eventual successor in the presidency, James Monroe, who simply judged him Insane! he probably came in for as much criticism as anyone who held the office.

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As H. L. Mencken pointed out in his essay, Pater Patria, Washington viewed by 20th century standards – which would be to take him totally out of context – would suffer greatly under the scrutiny of those Mencken loved to refer to as peck-n-sniffs. What Washington in his quiet eloquence tried to tell us was that Happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected, that Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master, that The marvel of all history is the patience with which men and women submit to burdens unnecessarily laid upon them by their governments, and make no mistake that Firearms are second only to the Constitution in importance; they are the peoples’ liberty’s teeth.

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Whether you admire him for his republican virtues, the simplicity of his eloquence, the honor with which he served and the even greater honor with which he retired from service – or whether you admire him for his political adroitness and his ability to govern without ruling – there is much to admire in the man and Ferling’s book is a solid contribution in aid of understanding him.

George Washington, full-length portrait, in full dress uniform on horseback preparing his troops for the final battle of the Revolutionary War in Yorktown, Virginia. The figure to Washington's immediate right is the Marquis de Lafayette, and the three officers barely visible behind him are Compte de Rochambeau, Henry Knox and Benjamin Lincoln. Alexander Hamilton is the rider on the right.

George Washington, full-length portrait, in full dress uniform on horseback preparing his troops for the final battle of the Revolutionary War in Yorktown, Virginia. The figure to Washington’s immediate right is the Marquis de Lafayette, and the three officers barely visible behind him are Compte de Rochambeau, Henry Knox and Benjamin Lincoln. Alexander Hamilton is the rider on the right.

The ascent of George Washington: the hidden political genius of an American icon New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009 John Ferling United States Politics and government 1783-1809, Washington, George, 1732-1799 Hardcover. 1st U.S. ed. and printing. xxiii, 438 p., [16] p. of plates: ill. (some col.), maps; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 383-423) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG  

George Washington, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right, atop a funeral urn which stands on pedestal before an obelisk, the pedestal is inscribed "Born Febr. 11th 1732 U.S. Died Decemr. 14th 1799"; Columbia stands before a palm tree on the left, lamenting, and Justice stands before a palm tree on the right, directing an angel, "Fame", blowing her trumpet, to spread the news of Washington's death.

George Washington, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right, atop a funeral urn which stands on pedestal before an obelisk, the pedestal is inscribed “Born Febr. 11th 1732 U.S. Died Decemr. 14th 1799”; Columbia stands before a palm tree on the left, lamenting, and Justice stands before a palm tree on the right, directing an angel, “Fame”, blowing her trumpet, to spread the news of Washington’s death.

Our first president has long been viewed as a hero who rose above politics. 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. 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.

Benjamin B. French, Grand Master of the Masons, laying cornerstone of Washington Monument, July 4, 1848; and insert of head-and-shoulders portrait of George Washington.

Benjamin B. French, Grand Master of the Masons, laying cornerstone of Washington Monument, July 4, 1848; and insert of head-and-shoulders portrait of George Washington.

Perhaps the most revered American of all, George Washington has long been considered a stoic leader who held himself above the fray of political infighting. What has gone unnoticed about the much-researched life of Washington is that he was in fact a consummate politician, as historian John Ferling shows in this revealing and provocative new book.

General Washington at Christ Church, Easter Sunday, 1795

General Washington at Christ Church, Easter Sunday, 1795

As leader of the Continental Army, Washington’s keen political savvy enabled him not only to outwit superior British forces, but – even more challenging – to manage the fractious and intrusive Continental Congress. Despite dire setbacks early in the war, Washington deftly outmaneuvered rival generals and defused dissent from officers below him, ending the war with the status of a national icon.

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His carefully burnished reputation allowed Washington, as president, to lead the country under the guise of non-partisanship for almost all of his eight years in office. Washington, Ferling argues, was not only one of America’s most adroit politicians, he was easily the most successful of all time – so successful, in fact, that he is no longer thought of as having been political.

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