The Grand Idea, by Joel Achenbach


The topic of The Grand Idea is a little fuzzy. For a while as I read, I assumed—in keeping with the subtitle, George Washington’s Potomac and the Race to the West—that the book was about George Washington’s efforts after the Revolutionary War and before his presidency to promote the Potomac River’s being the main water artery from the Atlantic Ocean to what was then the western portion of the United States.

And indeed, insofar as the book has any primary topic, that’s what it is. But as I read, it seemed to expand into a mini-biography of Washington, as it continued on into his presidency and beyond. But more of a “life and times” biography, as it also has plenty of material about what was going on in the country during his life. Then Washington dies about two-thirds of the way through the book, and it continues as a history book about John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, the War of 1812, slavery, etc.

Periodically it does come back to the Potomac, but there is an awful lot of other stuff in here. Maybe one could say that in some very loose sense all the other material relates to Washington’s scheme to build up the Potomac, but probably only in the loose sense that pretty much everything in history relates to everything else in some way or other.

I have a sense from personal experience how a book can end up like this, even just from writing term papers and such way back when. You start with A, you add B to help explain A, you realize both A and B will make more sense if you add C for context, adding C encourages you to add the equally relevant D, if you include D you pretty much have to include E to explain D, and on and on. It’s not so much a matter of going off on tangents because you’re momentarily more interested in a given tangent than in what you’re supposed to be writing about; you’re going into these other things precisely because it feels like it’s necessary to do so to truly cover your topic, but the whole thing just keeps expanding.

The thing is, evidently it could have been even more sprawling. As author Achenbach notes in the Acknowledgements, “I’m lucky to have the best editor in the business, Alice Mayhew, who saw the shape of the book before I did, and who reined in my impulse to turn it into the history of the entire universe.”

Maybe she should have pulled those reins in just a little tighter. Then again, maybe not. Because I don’t know that what I’m describing is really even a flaw. Yes, the logical structure of the book isn’t as sound as it could be, but a wide-ranging discussion is not without value. Achenbach brings up many interesting points that may have been lost if he had been more strict about keeping a narrow focus on his topic.

So I’ll talk about both: George Washington’s Potomac scheme, plus various little early American history tidbits from the book that I happened to find thought-provoking.

By the way, late 18th century and early 19th century American history is not something I have much background in. I had minimal exposure to it in high school and college—certainly less than the average person who advanced as far educationally as I did—and while various things I’ve read since then have touched on this period, only very little was primarily about it. The Whites of Their Eyes by Jill Lepore is one of the few exceptions I can think of off the top of my head from recent years. So a lot more of this book was new to me than probably should have been.

But as far as George Washington and the Potomac, after the war was won and General Washington retired to his Mount Vernon plantation with the intention of living out his life as a civilian, one of the ideas that most animated him was seeking to establish the Potomac as a key American waterway.

He saw it as having great potential as a means of transporting people and goods back and forth to inland areas that at this time in history were still very isolated. It needed a lot of work to serve that purpose though. There were numerous boulders and such that interfered with boat traffic and needed to be removed from the river, there were portage roads to be built where river passage was not possible, there were locks to be built, and so on. Washington explored up the Potomac personally and saw for himself how ambitious a project it would be to turn the river into anything like what he envisioned, but he was convinced the effort was worth it.

Interestingly, one concern he had that made such a project all the more urgent is that the country could easily split east and west if sufficient horizontal ties were not established. Of course ultimately it was the north and south split—over slavery—that nearly tore the country apart and caused such massive bloodshed, but in Washington’s time it wasn’t far-fetched that the greater risk to the union was east-west.

Settlers were arriving from overseas and immediately heading deep into the west, feeling little or no connection to this new nation in the east. The lands they settled on were technically part of that nation, but only technically. They had less connection with the governmental and economic power back along the Atlantic than the colonies had had with Britain, and Washington had personally experienced through the Revolution how such weak ties could be broken.

If the country was to remain in one piece, a key element was increasing the interdependence between east and west. If instead the Americans of the west traded more down the Mississippi (which was not yet U.S. territory remember) and elsewhere, they could be seduced in the future by the French, Spanish, British, or whomever and feel that their interests were more intertwined with those of the people of one of these other nations rather than with those of their fellow Americans.

There weren’t just physical impediments to expanding the usefulness of the Potomac. The (at that time weak) federal government, and more importantly multiple state governments, had to be recruited into the project. Meanwhile, there were other states with their own waterways to the west who naturally preferred that one of their rivers become the primary connection to the new western settlements. There was a lot of political and economic negotiating and lobbying involved.

Ultimately the project was mostly a bust. Efforts of one kind or another continued for decades, but the river itself was uncooperative (the Potomac is prone to flooding in places and drying out in places, among other difficulties) and there was too much political chicanery to overcome.

Most importantly, time and technology passed the project by. With the Louisiana Purchase, what constituted the “West” changed overnight. All of a sudden, it was understood that Americans would be spreading much deeper into the country and ultimately all the way to the Pacific Ocean, making the Potomac a pretty trivial regional river in the grand scheme of things.

Meanwhile, railroads lessened the import of water travel in general. And that’s before we even get to more modern times with cars and airplanes, and eventually phones and computers and such to enable connections that don’t even require physically moving from place to place.

But building on this last point—and now taking things beyond just the Potomac project—one of Achenbach’s strengths in this book is reminding us just how different the world was back then. Not just in terms of physical things like working the land with horses and hand tools instead of tractors and such, but mental perceptions and worldviews.

Everything moved slower—goods, people, information—or often didn’t move at all. If you had some reason to want to get from Point A to Point B, often that didn’t matter, because there was no realistic way to do so.

We take for granted nowadays that if something significant happens on the other side of the world, we’ll know about it instantaneously, or at least the next time we turn on our phone or computer. But what an extraordinary change that is from all of human history up until very recent times.

People in Washington’s time lived in extraordinary isolation compared to us, though they didn’t think of themselves as out of touch since they had nothing to contrast it with. Washington, for instance, didn’t know he’d been elected president until weeks later when someone finally arrived at Mount Vernon to tell him.

There was so much people still didn’t know back then. For example, even as late as the time of the Revolution and its aftermath, the Rocky Mountains were little more than a rumor. The first time a European crossed them was in 1793, and precious few had even laid eyes on them before that.

And of course, however “obvious” historical developments might seem with the benefit of hindsight, people living before and during them can do little more than guess how things will turn out. No one really knew if this new experimental American nation would even establish itself successfully and persevere. Washington’s concerns about an east-west split were not the product of some kind of idiosyncratic pessimism; such concerns and others like them were widespread, and with good reason.

The Founders saw (well, heard about weeks and months later) how the French Revolution, following so closely on their own, resulted in the beheading of a king, and soon enough the beheadings of numerous of the revolutionary leaders themselves, and they had to wonder if such a fate awaited them. Or if an internal uprising didn’t shatter the nation, perhaps an external invasion would. In the War of 1812, the British even succeeded in destroying the new capital city of Washington.

Speaking of Washington, DC, the process of choosing a location for the capital involved a bitter struggle that inflamed regional rivalries, and the site on the Potomac only prevailed by a very close vote. Washington himself certainly preferred the site, since Mount Vernon was on the Potomac, and he had long been a champion of the Potomac, and it is assumed that he pushed for it behind the scenes, but he believed that publicly he had to remain above it all when the states and their representatives fought among themselves, so he didn’t take a public stand.

Actually his whole Potomac scheme itself was more a matter of self-interest than he would have wanted to admit. Not only was Mount Vernon on the Potomac, but he owned a great deal of land further inland that would increase substantially in value if the Potomac could be developed into a great waterway of trade.

Washington was a very rich man, and insofar as his ideas for the Potomac were implemented he would become all the richer. But it was contrary to his self-image to perceive things that way. Not only did he have to claim that the case for the Potomac being the most promising river to build up as the key connection to the west was convincing on its merits with no reference to self-interest, he had to sincerely believe it too. He couldn’t see himself as a land speculator or anything grubby like that, as it was beneath what he considered the dignity of a gentleman like himself.

One of the more intriguing sections of the book details how Washington’s postwar travels up the river were not just about investigating his Potomac scheme but also about checking up on the land he owned. What he found is that much of it was occupied by squatters.

It’s interesting thinking about this in connection with abstract principles of land ownership and such. Washington fought the squatters tooth and nail through the courts—and generally won—and felt utterly self-righteous in doing so. As far as he was concerned, it was his land, there were people on it not paying him rent, and he had the right to toss them out on their ass.

But of course things looked very different to the people on the land. They had come to a completely barren area of wilderness, and heroically built something out of nothing with their bare hands over the course of years and decades, fighting nature and Indians every step of the way, seeing fellow settlers and their own family members die all around them. Few of them were doing more than scratching a bare subsistence living out of the land, and now along comes some rich stranger from the east to announce that because of some piece of paper this is all really his land, in spite of the fact that every bit of value it has is as the result of their labor, not his.

It’s the eternal conflict between those who do the work, and those who find a way to siphon off the profits generated by those who work, with the latter almost always having the guns and government on their side.

Another difference of perception that Achenbach does a good job of highlighting is how views on wilderness have changed. Back then, wild nature was an affront to people’s desire for value and efficiency. Nature was something to be tamed and exploited, not something to appreciate. As Alexis de Tocqueville put it, the American frontiersman “will gladly send you off to see a road, a bridge, or a fine village. But that one should appreciate great trees and the beauties of solitude, that possibility completely passes him by.”

America was an almost unimaginably large and empty place (Indians didn’t count), forbidding, inspiring, and above all challenging to those who would conquer and transform all this land into something useful. As Achenbach puts it:

Today, with the United States a geographically static nation, with the wilderness in the Midwest converted to farmland, with the technologies of transportation so advanced and commonplace that Americans routinely fly 7 miles above the Earth from New York to Los Angeles and never look out the window, it is hard to imagine how intoxicating, in 1784, was the existence, the sheer physical reality, of all that unsettled, fertile, lush, forested, seductive, “virgin” land. It’s safe to say that no one today becomes atwitter at the mention of the physical existence of this thing called Ohio.

Moving on, of course it’s always disturbing to read how casually other races were regarded as subhuman back then. We revere the Founders as virtual demigods, but were they really significantly more morally evolved than the Nazis?

I don’t mean that as hyperbole. They literally owned human beings. They literally committed genocide against the indigenous people in the country they’d simply declared was theirs. Those aren’t PC microaggressions; they are truly instances of Nazi-like behavior and Nazi-like worldviews.

Washington himself wasn’t as vicious about it as some, certainly. He was sincerely bothered by slavery and hoped for its eventual end, but anything he actually did to oppose it, whether in terms of public policy or in terms of his individual behavior as a slave-owning plantation owner, was very limited. He was much like Thomas Jefferson—and no doubt many of the more enlightened folks back then—in that respect. It would not be completely fair and accurate to describe them as “pro-slavery,” but at the very least they worked out a way to coexist with the system.

As I say, I didn’t have a great deal of background knowledge of this historical period prior to reading The Grand Idea. I had never read a book-length biography of Washington, and indeed had read precious little about him in general. So what do I make of him now, having read this book?

I suppose I’d say he doesn’t strike me as a hugely impressive, larger-than-life figure. (Then again, few people do.)

Superficially, yes, I can understand how he could have been an intimidating figure if you were in the same room with him. He was very tall relative to the norm back then, and knew how to use his size to be physically imposing. He had an aloof way about him. He virtually never smiled. Whether as general or president, he was the leader, the alpha male, not someone available to be interacted with as an equal.

Not to mention he was seemingly impossible to kill. Throughout his life the anecdotes piled up of his successfully defying death on the battlefield and out in the wilderness. While those around him succumbed to the enemy or to nature, he was always left standing. As Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) says of Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) in Apocalypse Now, “He was one of those guys that had a weird light around him. You just knew he wasn’t going to get so much as a scratch here.”

But at a deeper level, he strikes me as having as many and as significant limitations and flaws as most folks.

He was obsessed with his reputation, which I think was both a strength and a weakness. To some extent it’s an unappealing trait of petty vanity. But on the other hand, you can make the case that it was valuable not just to him but to the young and fragile country that its leader be perceived as a person of stellar character who was largely above the political fray, remaining neutral whenever possible on matters of controversy, and where that wasn’t possible making public policy decisions like a philosopher king, unswayed by individual or party self-interest, by passion, or by ambition (he was the reluctant leader after all, the man who retired after winning the war, who rejected all efforts to make him king, who only came out of retirement to serve as president when he was implored to do so as the only way to hold the nation together).

Maybe his actual abilities and what he did and such were not as important as his role as a symbol. That was a role he played very well, even if he himself was in most respects nothing extraordinary.

Anyway, The Grand Idea did not capture me in a big way, but there is enough of interest in it to make it a worthwhile read.


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