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The Grand Idea: George Washington's Potomac…

The Grand Idea: George Washington's Potomac and the Race to the West (2004)

by Joel Achenbach

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George Washington was a giant of a man in the same mold as Churchill, Nelson, Captain Cook and Ben Franklin. His stature is enhanced as you discover more about his leadership and vision, history can not diminish him, even when revealing his foibles and defeats. He remains the greatest American. Earlier reading, and my visiting and sensing the pities of Valley Forge added to my respect and admiration of this giant of a man. Despite an English birth I believe had my time been his, I would surely have joined his principled and Glorious Revolution and shared the Congressional neglect and politically induced starvation of his Continental Army while fighting for principles of Liberty, as did so many British settlers.

In 1784, thinking that the fates had finished with him Washington ‘retired’ to his beloved Mount Vernon to settle down to farm under his ‘vines and figs’ and to turn this plantation, with its stunning views of the Potomac into his home. When you visit Mount Vernon and drift through the relatively tiny and cozy rooms and settle on a rocker on the magnificent portico and gaze at the river view – as he must have often done- you realize he achieved even this modest ambition greatly.

But the fates were already calling him back and his intellectual searching, so far ahead of so many others, were already stirring his concern that the newly forged nation was in danger of rending apart into two. So this action-orientated giant ‘got back in the saddle’ and undertook a journey to determine if his river – the Potomac – could seal the new Union and provide an outlet to the West for the restless States – his Grand Idea – and, of course, his journey led back to his continuing his interrupted service to this Great Nation.

Joel Achenbach has produced a very readable account of the start of this great man’s return to service.
  John_Vaughan | Jun 26, 2011 |
Achenbach’s tale of Washington surveying his land in 1784 is interesting in its own right, but unfortunately there is only so much nature writing that can hold one’s interest. The author himself even states that Washington’s diary of the trip was very straightforward and unflourished. The fun history comes after Washington is gone—he continues on with the history of the Potomac River through the War of 1812 and the Civil War. Enthusiasts of local and regional history will find this volume useful. ( )
  NielsenGW | Jan 25, 2009 |
A Refreshing Look at George Washington

It is 1784. The war was won. He had retired to pursue farming his “fig tree and vine” life along the banks of the Potomac River.

Yet George Washington’s mind could not remain fallow. Watching the lazy tidal waters of the Potomac lap shores of his Mount Vernon plantation, he developed what author Joel Achenbach calls his Potomac Scheme. The retired warrior planned a trip up the Potomac, over the Appalachians and into the frontier. The excuse was to collect back rents on his properties. The objective, however, was to lay the ground work for a plan that would transform the Potomac into a major commercial artery that would link the 13 newly established states with the unsettled West.

There was a method to Washington scheme. Achenbach, who describes himself as an explanatory journalist as opposed to an historian, details Washington’s concern that the newly established country would fracture into separate nations. The Potomac, Washington envisioned, could effectively bind the two regions.

The book paints an insightful portrait of Washington. Set between periods of public service, the reader sees a relaxed man, predisposed towards action. A man who loves the outdoors; a man with an unquenchable entrepreneurial drive; a man who believes the country’s destiny lays to the west.

Achenbach took three years to research and write this largely uncovered period of Washington’s life. He spices his account with descriptions of the land's geography, politics, farmers and backwoodsmen, Indians and slaves.

Thanks to Achenbach well-written “explanatory journalism,” Washington emerges as an engaging visionary not the stiff, aloof figure portrayed in history books. ( )
  PointedPundit | Mar 31, 2008 |
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The Grand Idea is thus a frustrating book because, for all its faults, it makes clear how good a writer Joel Achenbach is and how much good sense he has about matters historical. We can hope that his next project is better edited and thus better captures his own abilities as an explainer of the past.
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To Mary, Paris, Isabella, and Shane, for going along
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The man who could have been king was just a farmer now, at peace with the world.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0684848570, Hardcover)

The war had been won. Now what? This was the pressing political question for the United States in 1784, and a consuming one for George Washington. He had laid down his sword and returned home to Mount Vernon after eight and a half years as commander of the Continental Army. He vowed that he had retired forever, that he would be a farmer on the bank of the Potomac River, under his own "vine and fig tree." But history was not done with him, and he was not done with history.

Within a year, as Joel Achenbach relates in this stunning narrative, Washington saddled up and rode away on one of the most daring journeys of his rich and adventurous life: a trek across the Appalachian mountains to the frontier, where he would inspect his long-neglected western property and try to collect rent.

The Grand Idea is the story of Washington's ambitions for the brand-new republic that he had fought so hard to create. His western journey culminates in a breathtaking scheme: Washington, with the help of Thomas Jefferson, will transform the Potomac River into a commercial artery that will link the new West to the old East. Worried that the newborn country was so fragmented that it might literally split into two separate and rival nations, he uses the skills he learned as a young backwoods surveyor to come up with his river plan. The future of the Union, Washington believes, depends on the Potomac route to the West, which will bind the country to one enterprise.

Achenbach's sympathetic and wry portrait of General Washington is not the stiff figure of official portraits, but that of a bold man who plunges into uncharted forest and sleeps in a downpour with only his cloak for shelter. He is an inventor, entrepreneur, and land speculator. He loves the West. This Washington is someone who understands that the fledgling republic clinging to the Atlantic seaboard will become a great and booming nation.

Achenbach tracks Washington's river plan from the choosing of the site for the national capital, which led to his being elected as the first president, to its link, decades after his death, to various grandiose plans for a canal that would run hundreds of miles. Ultimately the dream of a Potomac route to the West is abandoned. The nation splits not East and West but North and South, and the river becomes a boundary between warring sides in the Civil War.

Like such classics as Undaunted Courage and Founding Brothers, Achenbach's The Grand Idea is a large narrative of a great man and his grand plan that captures the uncertainties and conflicts of the new country, the passions of an ambitious people, and the seemingly endless beauty of the American landscape.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:00 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Chronicles retired general George Washington's adventurous 680-mile trek down the Potomac River, a journey during which he endeavored to prevent disunion, collected key frontier data, and inspired engineering achievements.

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