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The Grand Idea: George Washington's Potomac and the Race to the West Hardcover – Deckle Edge, June 1, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

A snappy book about a river and horseback trip more than two centuries ago? Hard to pull off, but Achenbach (Captured by Aliens, etc.) has done so with enough authority to satisfy historians and in a lively style sure to please general readers. His tale is about George Washington's fixation with the West-not today's Far West but the lands inland of the Appalachians-and about what that single-minded interest came to mean for the nation. One wouldn't think that chapters devoted to a single horseback trip that Washington, the nation's first great westerner, took inland in 1784 could be of much interest. But the author uses that trip to unroll a large canvas of subjects, chief among them how a single man's "personal issues had a way of becoming national ones." Fleshing out a day-to-day itinerary with lively excursions into the land's geography, politics, farmers and backwoodsmen, Indians and slaves, Achenbach also unwraps Washington's personality, at once magisterial and rough, obsessive yet realistic, accepting of the people but disdainful of those who got in his way. The Potomac, whose successful development as grand route to the interior would greatly benefit Washington, also plays a central role. Achenbach explains how the river's intractable geography kept the nation's capital from becoming the great metropolis of Washington's dreams. Toward the end, the book wanders off into the Civil War and such subjects as today's Potomac and its landscape. Achenbach ought to have stuck close to his opening intent. The story of Washington's fixity on a dream impossible to realize is a good enough tale on its own. 6 maps.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Thomas Jefferson, with his dream of an "empire of liberty" extending to the Pacific, is generally thought of as the Founding Father most devoted to western expansion. Yet, as this revealing and often fascinating book illustrates, Jefferson was not alone in his hopes and plans for the vast regions beyond the Appalachians. Achenbach, a staff writer for the Washington Post and a monthly columnist for National Geographic, credibly asserts that Washington, from his young manhood, had shown consistent interest, perhaps even an obsession, with the latent promise and possibilities of the West. As a young officer in the Virginia militia, Washington had traversed the frontier to dispute French claims to the Ohio country. Before the American War of Independence began, he had engaged intensely in land speculation there. After independence, Washington claimed his fondest hope was to return to the life of a gentlemen farmer at his beloved Mt. Vernon, but his restless spirit led him to plan an epic journey westward. This is an interesting perspective on Washington's views and personality. Jay Freeman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; First Edition edition (June 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684848570
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684848570
  • Product Dimensions: 9.7 x 6.6 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #667,497 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Here's my book website:

Here's my boilerplate bio:

Joel Achenbach has been a staff writer for The Washington Post since 1990, started the newsroom's first online column in 1999 and the paper's first blog, Achenblog, in 2005. His seventh book, "A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea," an account of the Deepwater Horizon disaster and its aftermath, will be [whoa, make that WAS] published in April 2011 by Simon & Schuster. His syndicated column Why Things Are (1988-1996), which he began when he worked at The Miami Herald, appeared in 50 newspapers and three collections of the column were published by Ballantine Books. He has been a regular contributor to National Geographic since 1998, writing stories on such topics as dinosaurs, particle physics, earthquakes, extraterrestrial life, megafauna extinction and the electrical grid. Now assigned to the Post's national desk, he writes on science and politics and helped cover the Deepwater Horizon story. A 1982 graduate of Princeton University, he has taught journalism at Princeton and Georgetown University. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Mary Stapp, and three daughters.

In case that's too confusing, here's the basic point: I'm something that used to be known as "a newspaper reporter."

Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
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See all 30 customer reviews
This book is superbly written, witty, and a pleasure to read.
Amazon Customer
Anyone interested in American history, the presidency, the history of the city of Washington, or economic history will love this book.
Travis T Brown jr
Achenbach's writing style is informal and entertaining without belying the scholarly nature of his subject.
William Eaton

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Dr. Karen M. Gray on June 7, 2004
Format: Hardcover
When Joel Achenbach tells the story of Washington?s Potomac journeys and his life-long commitments of money, time, and power to the region?s economic potential, he reveals that Washington was a wilderness adventurer from his days as a callow youth to his final years as a near demi-god. The Grand Idea therefore gives us a window into the sheer physical hardiness of this tidewater planter. Intriguingly, it also enlivens the complex mix of personal and national concerns that drove Washington, his deeply rooted foibles, and his truly-awesome ability to learn and mature in wisdom and ethics. It is no mean task to bring Washington to us neither as the commander of the military effort to win independence, nor as the nation?s first president, but rather as a man with real and intimate familiarity with the western wilderness, a patriot?s dream for its future, and a businessman?s hard-headed realization that a people can?t flourish until certain crucial improvements are in place. Achenbach?s lively and immediate style will bind his readers to the book until it is finished.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on February 3, 2005
Format: Hardcover
The title "George Washington's Potomac and the Race to the West" is s little misleading. The central narrative certainly the opening of commerce routs to the West, and George Washington's obsession with that objective, but the real story in this book is the survival of the United States as a nation and how Washington's unyielding commitment to keep his dream alive. Washington visited more of the country than any man of his day, and repeated trips to the wilderness as the frontier steadily moved westward. He fully knew the diversity of cultures and values in the different regions of his country, and was acutely aware of how little connection there was between those peoples and regions.

Washington saw a commercial connection to the west as critical to cement the states together. Settlers in Ohio had little access to the market places of the coastal states, and less access to the good available there. Washington feared that if the Spanish opened the Mississippi and the port of New Orleans to American settlers, the westerners would become more attached to Spain than to the Coastal states, possibly to the point of hostility. What I found truly fascinating was the degree which many of the Founders opposed any and all measures proposed to strengthen the union. Independence was barely won, and not yet proven sustainable, and the civil war was brewing. The Southerners opposed allowing the federal government even the authority to build roads and bridges; for fear that a powerful federal government would eventually take on the issue of slavery.

I found this book a truly enjoyable read on a long neglected, but important thread in American history.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By W. Calhoun on February 6, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Although George Washington made a geographic miscalculation in thinking the Potomac River would be the "front door" on to "the fertile plains of the Western Country"-he was right (as usual) about his vision of the western-oriented destiny that awaited his countrymen.

In the very lively and interesting The Grand Idea: George Washington's Potomac and the Race to the West, Joel Achenbach, a staff writer for the Washington Post and science columnist for National Geographic, tells the story of Washington's western trip soon after the Revolution. He made this journey in 1784: up the Potomac, across the Appalachian Mountains and into the Ohio valley country of western Pennsylvania. The rugged 34-day, 680-mile trip by canoe and horseback was made in part to collect rents on Washington's long-neglected western properties. The trip helped to protect Washington's private interests, but it also crystallized his belief that the Potomac was the natural passage to the continental interior. This belief became somewhat of an obsession, not only because of personal motivation, but also because Washington thought the Potomac waterway would bind the 13 new states with the unsettled West through "the cement of interest." That is, a strong commercial connection that would prevent a possible future split due to emerging political differences and foreign influence.

Achenbach's entertaining book has a fluid and almost conversational style, and its story goes beyond the early attempts to commercially navigate the shallow and fickle Potomac by Washington's envisioned system of canals and locks. His later chapters especially blend biography, geography and history, while examining the importance of the Erie Canal, the coming of railroads, the Civil War as well as the Potomac as it is today.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Travis T Brown jr on July 14, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Joel Achenbach's The Grand Idea: George Washington's Potomac and the Race to the West is an elegant fusion of American business history, presidential biography, and geography, told as a good and gripping story. Achenbach does a remarkable thing in this book: he explores an important theme - George Washington's ambitions for what the young republic should become when it grew up -- without the weighty tone of scholarship typical of such treatments. The book has a charming, almost conversational style which reveals the contradictions, ambiguities and tensions in the life of Washington and his peers in their messy humanity and the rough social reality of their contemporary context. Achenbach is a witty, insightful and incredibly competent sherpa through this landscape and history; he never lets his prose eclipse the inherent drama of the story. And he stops the narrative now and then to chat with the reader on the matter at hand, as in this passage on historical interpretation:
.... All of which is a reminder that history is not an exact science and at moments is more like a séance, a desperate attempt, in the mist and fog, to channel the voices of the dead.
The story is fascinating at several levels: the description of the young country as so fractured that any assertion of Federal authority threatened to drive states out of the Union; the tensions between the first President's private and public agendas; the inability of investors and policy makers to know when a new technology (the railroad) had made another (the canal) obsolete. These are all themes that resonate through American history; it is as if Achenbach has discovered their headwaters in this brilliant and highly readable book.
Anyone interested in American history, the presidency, the history of the city of Washington, or economic history will love this book. Buy it and read it!
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