- 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 (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 34 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,357,146 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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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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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.
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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Top customer reviews
This book is superbly written, witty, and a pleasure to read. Author Joel Achenbach explains how creation of the United States was not as inevitable as we take for granted today. His description of Washington's personality and conduct in a business context enables the reader to better understand how Washington led and inspired a revolutionary army and guided the establishment of a new government.
This was George Washington's dream, and his hope that it would be his ultimate legacy to building a strong and unified nation. Ultimately, better ideas prevailed, particularly the Erie Canal and the invention of reliable railroads. The Potomac gateway to the West morphed into the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, which in and of itself was never more than a middling competitor to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.
Regardless, the story is fascinating in and of itself, and also because it opens a window onto a lesser-known side of George Washington. Author Joel Achenbach provides wonderful insights into Washington's life, motivations and actions. And he shows how people through the pre-Revolutionary and immediate post-Revolutionary periods were already strongly on the prowl to expand America's influence across the continent. Washington himself got his career started as a surveyor in the Shenandoah Valley, where he would soon become a major property owner, and to which he would return after the Revolutionary War to scout the Potomac River as the route to the West. (Washington also was involved in disastrous and near-criminal military engagements in the area, as Achenbach reminds us in quick dispatches about those debacles.)
Using Washington's diary, his letters to others, and court records, Achenbach gives a meticulous account of a trip Washington took in fall 1784 to scout the Potomac and also to visit some of his far-flung properties. It's fascinating to see Washington as a hard-nosed landowner, quick to lean on tenants and squatters for rent (and to encounter lawsuits).
Washington's dream was deferred as he presided over the Constitutional Convention. But as two-term president, he was able to push for the construction of canals and the dredging of the Potomac that he thought would be his legacy. The work turned out to be harder than expected and the river turned out to be more troublesome (too much flow after storms, not enough in the dry season). But efforts continued and some minimal amounts were shipped on the lower Potomac for a while.
But at the same time, the more commercially adept New Yorkers created the Erie Canal and took economic primacy. Achenbach notes that this foreshadowed the tension between the States that would flare up in the mid-19th Century in the Civil War. While Washington and his peers tended to see things as the East (old, established) and the West (immigrants, fortune seekers), the U.S. instead evolved into North vs. South, in both commerce and the question of slavery.
Washington, as Achenbach points out, was anti-slavery, though he held slaves. He freed his slaves upon his death, but couldn't free those who belonged to his wife; ultimately, Washington's grandson sold those slaves and did the one thing Washington swore he wouldn't do: broke up families. (Note: It was the outrage of tearing families asunder that gives "Uncle Tom's Cabin" so much power, and which helped to galvanize the abolition movement.)
The book goes all the way to the present day in its final chapters, as it explains how the Potomac has remained reasonably untouched by commercial or even residential encroachment. It's a semi-wilderness on the edge of our Nation's Capitol and within easy driving distance of tens of millions of people. And it's the site of the wonderful national historic landmark the C&O Canal, which moves in parallel to Washington's original vision.
In 1784, after 8 years as commander of the Continental Army and defeating the British in the process, George Washington retired to his Mount Vernon home on the banks of the Potomac River. He vowed, that at age 52, he would retire forever under his "vine and fig tree". We all know that was not to be and two terms as President 1789 -1797 would extend his service to his country.
Joel Achenbach explores Washington's plans and schemes during the period immediately after his "retirement" in 1784. To summarize, these consisted of an extended inspection tour of his extensive land holdings across the Appalachian Mountains, which resulted in some confounding legal entanglements. More germane to the book's story is the proposal to transform the Potomac into a fully navigable waterway that would expedited commerce, forge the allegiances of the settlers to the Colonies and greatly increase Washington's personal wealth.
Mr. Achenbach writes an informative and fascinating book that sheds light on aspects of George Washington's biography that are, I believe, not very well known to many readers. The last third of the book discusses the current status of the Potomac improvement project initiated by Washington. Extensive notes, an index and useful maps of the Potomac watershed and Washington's journey add to the usefulness of this volume.
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