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George Washington: The Political Rise of America's Founding Father Hardcover – February 9, 2021
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“Stewart has written an outstanding biography that both avoids hagiography and acknowledges the greatness of Washington’s character, all while playing close attention to his rarely voiced but no less fierce political ambitions. . . . Mr. Stewart’s writing is clear, often superlative, his judgments are nuanced, and the whole has a narrative drive such a life deserves.”—The Wall Street Journal
“David O. Stewart brings his characteristic grace and skill to this portrait of the political George Washington, liberating the most elusive of our Founders from the mists of myth to discover a shrewd and approachable human being. At a time when politics seems beyond redemption, Stewart's book is a welcome reminder of the possibilities, however imperfect, of the public arena.”—Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of His Truth Is Marching On
“By focusing on the political genius of George Washington, David O. Stewart has produced an important new portrait of our first president. As Stewart demonstrates time and time again, with vivid prose and a wonderful sense of pacing, great leaders are also great learners. In this time of division and turmoil, this is the book we need.”—Nathaniel Philbrick, National Book Award–winning author of In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown
“David O. Stewart’s innovative and important study of George Washington’s political career succeeds because it places his successes as president of the United States within the context of his whole life and times. The most fascinating thing about Washington is not how he was great, but how he became great over the course of a dramatic career, compellingly chronicled in this book.”—Edward G. Lengel, author of General George Washington: A Military Life
“In this lively and admirable study, Stewart offers a balanced and thoughtfully well-written appreciation of George Washington’s life and leadership. A must for fans of biographies.”—Library Journal (starred review)
“Engaging . . . Devotees of the Founding Fathers will not want to miss the volume about the master politician, and American history buffs will be amazed by Stewart’s ability to hold your attention in this lengthy tome.”—The Virginia Gazette
“Examines in detail and with excellent analysis how Washington developed the political skills that would serve him in both war and peace. . . . A truly fresh look at one of the most chronicled figures in American history.”—New York Journal of Books
“Under Stewart's energetic hand, the cold-marble hero warms into a flawed yet remarkable person: ambitious, evenhanded, tender, callous, impetuous in his youth, wiser with age.”—Washington Independent Review of Books
“One of the most insightful books about George Washington. [Stewart's] explanation of Washington as a masterful politician is important and convincing.”—The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
“Stewart addresses the political aptitude of the Father of the Nation . . .[in this] readable and revealing contemporary look at Washington.”—Booklist (starred review)
About the Author
- Publisher : Dutton (February 9, 2021)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 576 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0451488989
- ISBN-13 : 978-0451488985
- Item Weight : 1.7 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.3 x 1.8 x 9.2 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #96,320 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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I found the book extremely well-written and researched. The author’s style is to make things very clear. As a result, not wanting to burden down the action with lengthy character descriptions, the author introduces all the major players upfront in a “Dramatis Personae,” many of them made full-bodied in portraits at the end.
The major contribution the book makes to Washington literature is to view him through a political lens, a filter framing and highlighting those aspects of his life that brick upon marble brick built the superbly political marble man. Thus, you’ll get the same story you’ve read before, except now you’ll learn way more about why things happened the way they did.
The book shows the welcome results of the author’s immense curiosity: Why? Why? Why? In a world of people and politics, things don’t just happen. As they say, “Some people make things happen; others watch them happen; others don’t have a clue as to what’s happened!” This book is about George Washington making things happen and the reasons the author puts forth — daily choices in Washington’s life — as to why and how he made them happen. Quite often, this is done by just logically adding two plus two, a method primarily employed in eliciting all the reasons why George and Martha married, and for which the author uses a virtual match-making checklist. In other cases, it takes a bit more thinking. Why did surveyors like George do their work in the spring and fall? Because obstructing tree foliage was minimized. Why did George have problems obtaining food for his hungry Virginia troops? Because it was spring, and the farmers had little in their stores left over from the winter.
Here’s an appealing chain of reasoning highlighting George’s rise: English Lord Fairfax needed money to pay his debts; he had more than plenty of land in frontier America; to sell his land, he needed to legally divide it; to divide it, he needed it surveyed; he required a surveyor who was both hardy and knowledgeable; voila, he discovered his cousin’s son-in-law’s brother was a young, eager-to-learn surveyor — Washington! And it goes on from there!
In this manner, the author often goes on minor, stage-setting forays into the fascinating details just off the fairway, the stories behind the stories. The reasons why this, why that. Northern “neck”? The land, looking like a neck, in between two rivers (in this case, the Potomac and Rappahannock). Aha, that’s what they meant; ah, that’s what happened! Again, I applaud the author’s curiosity in chasing down these items requiring intense, sustained research, and integrating them into an intriguing look at Washington’s life.
In doing his work, the author often uses little known statistics to put things into perspective about the forces swirling about Washington. E.g., as regards the need for his Virginia Regiment: 3% of frontier population killed/captured by Indians translates to 1% of total population killed/captured during the 1754-8 timeframe. Other event determinants are more qualitative than quantitative. E.g., the “bloody flux” or dysentery merits vivid description.
When no source documentation is available, the author uses situation-illuminating logical supposition with comments tempered with words such as “likely, maybe, could have, might have, evidently,” vs. annoyingly strong assertions (done recently by several Washington authors) as if imaginings were fact.
A final positive is that the author employs nice turns of phrase. E.g., regarding Washington’s reserve over his mother, Mary: “He was not one to grow maudlin over a mother’s love as the punchbowl drained.”
As far as hoped-for improvements, I wish the author would have spent more time on the Alien and Sedition Acts, which some researchers say that Washington privately supported, especially given the recent national issues our nation is confronting. The author does mention that Washington was incensed with a newspaper article urging he be guillotined. Not mentioned, however, is that, had it not been for the yellow fever epidemic brought on by mosquitoes in 1793, the Citizen Genet-incited Republican mobs that were threatening to lynch Washington for not supporting France might one night have found their opportunity. To speak freely, or not to speak freely?
In addition, I wish the author would have spent a bit of time on the Quasi-War with France. As well, I personally missed mention of the main key to the Bastille, Lafayette’s gift to Washington, which he proudly displayed in the main entryway of his Mount Vernon mansion.
I’d also like to mention the author’s use of the words “Chopping down his father’s cherry tree.” Actually, George was said to have been “barking” the cherry tree. Barking is something even a child can do, making enough hatchet whacks on a tree’s bark to stop the flow of sap so that the tree eventually dies.
To put things into a better perspective, especially as found in the smaller-page Kindle form, it might have been better if the author had more frequently reminded us of the relevant date (day/year).
OTOH, on another subject that might draw criticism, something that has garnered more than a bit of attention lately, I was not unhappy that the author didn’t fully relitigate issues with some of the more important escaped slaves, e.g., Oney Judge (Martha’s personal maid) and Hercules (Martha’s cook), with the possible reason that George’s beloved wife, Martha, urged him to go all out to capture them. Martha, after all, is said not to have fully shared George’s views on freedom for slaves.
But I realize a book can’t be everything to everyone. Bottom-line, this is a highly refreshing, illuminating, enjoyable read, well worth the ordering! Highly recommended!
Of possible interest: George Washington’s Liberty Key: Mount Vernon’s Bastille Key – the Mystery and Magic of Its Body, Mind, and Soul , a best-seller at Mount Vernon. “Character is Key for Liberty!” and
Strategy Pure and Simple: Essential Moves for Winning in Competition and Cooperation
Nevertheless, the question remains: Do we need another book about George Washington? Ron Chernow's exhaustive and comprehensive "Washington: A Life" is the definitive modern biography that covers Washington's political life and more, while John Ferling's "The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon" shares Stewart's narrower goal of examining Washington's political acumen. So you could argue that Stewart's thesis is not breaking new ground - but he offers some unique perspectives that makes his book a worthwhile read, even if some of his conclusions are debatable.
Ferling's book has been criticized by some for being too hard on Washington - for finding reasons to knock him down a peg just to prove that he was human and not a flawless demigod. Ultimately, he and Stewart agree that Washington was not the reluctant hero of myth, but one who was ambitious, politically savvy and mindful of his reputation and legacy. Nothing wrong with that, as both also conclude that even a shrewdly self-aware Washington is well-deserving of the esteem in which he's held. But where they differ, is that Ferling calls Washington out for his faults, mistakes and political miscalculations, while Stewart seems to give him the benefit of the doubt, almost every time.
Some of Stewart's conclusions, while they might differ from others', are at least extremely well-argued and convincing. While many historians consider the Battle of Jumonville a disastrous mistake on Washington's part, Stewart makes a well-reasoned argument that Washington was justified in launching the attack. While many biographers suggest a romantic relationship between Washington and the married Sally Fairfax, Stewart makes a credible counterargument. While Washington is popularly regarded as silent and passive at the Constitutional Convention, Stewart presents evidence that he was subtly and importantly influential. While some argue Washington confronting and forcing the resignation of his longtime associate, Attorney General Edmund Randolph, was rash and based on unconvincing evidence of his treachery, Stewart makes a persuasive case that Washington was entirely right to be suspicious of Randolph's integrity. And he disregards Thomas Jefferson's unconvincing story - which many who write about the era accept as fact - about how the Compromise of 1790 came to be, by describing how Washington pulled strings behind the scenes to ensure the U.S. capital would be located along the Potomac in exchange for the federal government's assumption of state debts.
Other atypical conclusions Stewart reaches are not as convincingly supported with thorough, well-reasoned arguments. While some contend that Washington's decision to put down the Whiskey Rebellion by personally leading a military expedition was an overreaction and Washington was manipulated by Alexander Hamilton into doing so, Stewart simply agrees with Washington's own judgment that "it was a crucial success." While Washington's attack on his political opponents' "democratic societies" in his Sixth Annual Message to Congress is often seen as an unforced political error that provoked the nascent partisan divide, enraging and emboldening his opponents, Stewart defends the address as "tame" and "far milder" than it could have been. And even on the question of why Washington never had biological children, Stewart cites "family tradition" (while acknowledging it is "undocumented") that Martha became unable to conceive after her last pregnancy, but never entertains the notion that "a virile figure like Washington" might have been less virile than we think.
And there's at least one curious factual error, where U.S. Ambassador to France James Monroe is described as being left in the dark during negotiations with the British over the Jay Treaty - then a mere eight pages later, after the treaty is ratified, Washington is described as trying to placate an aggrieved France by recalling the sitting U.S. Ambassador to France and sending a new, pro-French ambassador - James Monroe!
Otherwise, Stewart rightly devotes much attention to the often-overlooked period of Washington's life and career between the French and Indian War and the Revolution, crucial years during which Washington served in various public offices and learned the art of politics and governing that would later serve him so well. Stewart describes how Washington's political skills later allowed him to deftly outmaneuver his rivals and earn the loyalty of his soldiers during the Revolution, thwarting the Conway Cabal and putting an end to the Newburgh Conspiracy. And as President, his political skills allowed him to steer the country on a successful course, laying a strong foundation for those who would follow him.
Finally, the one area in which Stewart does not entirely give Washington the benefit of the doubt is slavery. Washington has largely been given great credit for freeing his slaves in his will, which is more than what other slaveowner presidents did, even those who claimed to abhor slavery. Stewart traces Washington's evolving views on slavery, his late-in-life efforts to get himself into a good financial position that would enable him to free his slaves without going broke, and tries to explain why he didn't adopt a more forceful position against slavery and use his will to denounce the institution and plead with his countrymen to do the same. Ultimately, though, Stewart leaves us with the sense that Washington's posthumous emancipation of his slaves was a bit too little, too late, and a tragic missed opportunity to exhort others to follow his example.
The book proceeds chronologically and covers most of the main aspects of Washington's political and personal life, though it's not strictly a biography - particularly during the Revolution, Stewart picks and chooses key events that support his thesis, while skimming or skipping others (Washington's string of early battle defeats, the dramatic crossing of the Delaware and the decisive Battle of Yorktown are only briefly noted, if at all). So this is really more of a character study that should not be anyone's first or only book on George Washington. But it's still well-deserving of being considered among the best modern books on George Washington. I didn't always agree with Stewart's interpretations and conclusions, but for a book that's this well-written, well-argued and well-documented, I enjoyed every moment of it anyway.