Friday, October 15, 2004

Author Joel Achenbach Explores George Washington's Grand Idea For Westward Expansion, November 4

Chestertown, MD, October 15, 2004 — Washington College's Center for Environment and Society and C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, in cooperation with The Nature Conservancy, present “The Grand Idea: George Washington's Potomac and the Race for the West,” a lecture by Joel Achenbach, Washington Post writer and columnist for National Geographic, Thursday, November 4, at 7:30 p.m. in the College's Hynson Lounge. The event is free and the public is invited to attend.

Recently released by Simon & Schuster, Achenbach's book, The Grand Idea: George Washington's Potomac and the Race to the West, examines an often ignored episode of Washington's post-Revolution career: his plan to make the Potomac River the major commercial thoroughfare of the new nation. As he describes Washington's 1784 trek to the West and his obsession with the Potomac project, Achenbach captures all the fears, uncertainties, class conflicts, and political passions of America in the late 18th Century. Washington hoped that a water route from the Potomac to the Ohio would cement the disparate regions and cultures of the fledgling United States. Rather than a historical footnote, the Potomac scheme, Achenbach asserts, was a major part of Washington's life, in some ways more revealing of his personality than his more famous public roles.

At the end of the War for Independence, Washington seemed to want nothing more than to become “a private citizen on the banks of the Potomac, & under the shadow of my own Vine & my own Fig-tree,” and yet a year later, in 1784, the 52-year-old former commander of the Continental Army set out on a 680-mile journey into what was popularly known as “the howling wilderness.” To be sure, Washington had a strong personal stake in the development of the Potomac, and over the course of many years had assembled an enormous backwoods empire that he had personally surveyed in 1770. But now, 14 years later, Washington also had a compelling vision of the new nation, and the Potomac was integral to it, Achenbach believes. The mountains that separated the long-settled East from the forests of the Ohio were not merely an impediment to trade, but, in Washington's view, they threatened national unity itself. In order to become a genuine nation that could fulfill its potential for greatness, America had to be knit together economically, politically, legally, and culturally, and Washington believed that the Potomac had been given by Providence as a natural passage to the continental interior, akin to the mythical Northwest Passage between Europe and the Orient. In an era of grand ideas, this was his grand idea.

Achenbach is a staff writer for The Washington Post, commentator for National Public Radio, and writes the monthly column “Who Knew?” for National Geographic. The author of five previous books, including Captured by Aliens, It Looks Like a President, Only Smaller (a humorous look at the 2000 presidential campaign), and Why Things Are, he lives in Washington, DC.

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