This book is a condensation and rewrite of Flexner’s four volume biographical study of the life of Washington. As he says in the preface, Flexner at first wanted to write a one volume biography, then felt he could not do justice to the man and his indispensable role in the founding of the country in less than four volumes, and then finally felt pressured to “distill what I had discovered into a single volume” that would “present in essence Washington’s character and career.”
In meeting his stated goal, Flexner was quite successful. In fifty-two chapters Flexner carries our hero, and Washington is indeed a hero in this book although not without flaws, from his youth as an obscure younger son from the backwoods of Virginia through his days as a soldier, a general, a planter, and a statesman, to his death in December of 1799. As for character, the Washington of this biography is a self-controlled man, fond of company and friends, but also temperate, quiet, a peacemaker, nevertheless at infrequent times giving way to an enormous temper.
George Washington, in this biography, truly is the indispensable man. It isn’t too much to say that without him the revolution would not have been successful, and that if it had been successful, the nation formed as a result of that revolution would have soon come apart and resolved itself into thirteen (or more) individual competing countries. Washington first holds the Continental Army together against all odds and at the expense of his own health and financial interests. Then after spending eight happy years in retirement at Mount Vernon, The Indispensable Man is called back into public life and given the responsibility of first moderating the Constitutional Convention, and then of presiding over a new, fledgling nation with deep sectional and philosophical rifts in opinion, culture and practice. If he couldn’t bring Jefferson and Hamilton and their followers together in the end, he at least managed to keep them from tearing the nation apart while they attacked each other and each other’s ideas and policies.
Although the book is certainly not hagiographic, Washington does fare well under scrutiny in this biographical treatment. Others of our founding fathers who figure in the story of Washington’s life do not make such a favorable impression. John Adams is a jealous and bitter wanna-be vice-president who can’t wait to take center stage as soon as Washington declines a third term as president. Jefferson is a trouble maker, untrustworthy, willing to advocate things in public and in the press to advance his own long term goals and policies, words and ideas that he repudiates in private because he knows they are impracticable or impolitic. Hamilton is a better friend to Washington, but still jealous of his own reputation and zealous for more power. Madison and Monroe are portrayed as Jefferson’s sycophants, willing to do almost anything to thwart the Federalist opposition even at the expense of the U.S. national interest.
In the portrayal in this book at least, Washington stands head-and-shoulders above all the other men of his time. Even late in his second term, when the author says several times that Washington is “losing his mental powers” and becoming weak and vacillating, he remains an admirable figure, one who is trying to do his best to serve the nation that has called upon him to give his best years to its service.
From this book I formed a better appreciation for Washington and his labors in the founding of our nation. I also began to suspect the actions and motives of others of our founding fathers. We’ll see how they fare in their own biographies as I read about the other presidents. Next up: John Adams by David McCullough.