The following is a review of The Indispensable Man by James T. Flexner.
The Indispensable Man
James Thomas Flexner originally wrote this biography in four volumes. The book is organized chronologically and proceeds from Washington’s birth in 1732 to his death in 1799. I found the book enriching, and it raised my interest in developing a more sophisticated political understanding of early American history. Above all I valued this book for its humanization of a legend.The Washington that emerges from these pages is a man of dazzling personal qualities, many failures, passion, strong affections and loyalties, and tremendous character.George Washington, in this book, truly comes across as the indispensable man. Without him the revolution would not have been successful, and that if it had been successful, the Nation formed as a result of that American 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 years in retirement at Mount Vernon, Washington 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 could not 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. In the portrayal in this book, 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.
In the book, Flexner takes us through Washington's life 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.
Disillusionment is good when it is able to get us behind the myths - not in order to tear them down, but — as in the case of learning about Washington — to more fully appreciate the impact of the very human figures made remarkable by history. At every turn America as a young country was in peril; every decision was layered with implications, competing passions, political pettiness, danger. Though this country was established by flawed men, it has not only survived, but risen to meet its ideals – and this was made possible by the pioneering leadership of George Washington. The Washington that emerges from these pages is a man of:
Impressive personal qualities –”The most significant aspect of Washington’s early career was that it took place at all. Every responsibility he assumed required public selection and support. When he was hardly beyond his teens, many of his associates were already convinced that his destiny was importantly linked to the destiny of America.”
Many failures — “Writers have contended that he was so incompetent that he would have been defeated by any other human beings except the dullards the British sent against him… The debate has overlooked the fact that Washington was never really a soldier. He was a civilian in arms.”
Passion and Commitment — In Manhattan in 1776, Washington rides toward the musket fire to find his men in full retreat. “Washington galloped after them, shouted, struck at them with his riding whip, but to no avail. He threw his hat on the ground, crying out, ‘Are these the men with whom I am to defend America?’ And again, ‘Good God! Have I got such troops as these?’ Unwilling to follow the retreat, Washington soon loomed on horseback, alone. Some fifty of the enemy dashed towards him. He watched them without moving. Had not aides galloped up and pulled him away, he would have been killed or captured.”
Strong affections and loyalties — Often betrayed by those close to him, envied, plotted against, and lied about, he was never defeated in his essential optimism and liking for people.
Tremendous character — He does the difficult but right thing without fail. One example: he was the only Virginia founding father to free all of his slaves.
A self-educator — This is evident throughout Washington’s long career as a precedent-setting political figure, but to me the most striking examples are his remaking of his Virginia farm as an entity independent of England, and his ability to learn the value of the ragtag Continental army and develop an ability to use it strategically.