I have mentioned Washington: the Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner in an article about the need to judge by deeds and character rather than by words and appearances. May my quibble with Flexner’s critique of the way Washington accepted command of the Continental army in no way have prejudiced people against this excellent biography! Washington: the Indispensable Man stands as an excellent condensation of Flexner’s four volume biography of Washington. His original hope had been to write a one volume biography of Washington, but compressing twenty-one years of public service into one volume proved impossible until after he wrote a four volume piece. Some parts of this work give the impression that much more was going on in Washington’s life than Flexner was able to divulge, especially the chapters covering the Revolutionary War. The only solution to obtaining a fuller picture of Washington’s struggles must lie in picking up a multi-volume biography such as the one Flexner wrote or perhaps Douglas Southall Freeman’s.
One of the strongest parts of the biography consists in his ability to delineate Washington as a sanguine individual rather than as the stoic man of principle whom textbooks and legend have given us. Of course, Washington was a man of high principle who tried to keep a calm and cool demeanor; yet, his principles had a great deal of fervor behind them, and he did not hide his emotions when the occasion called for joy. For example, Washington’s exuberant cheers at seeing the arrival of the French navy during the Yorktown campaign surprised the officers of the French navy such that they doubted at first that they saw Washington on the shore. A cold individual could not have been so beloved of his men. When the Continental army verged on mutiny due to the soldiers being denied anywhere from two to five years pay, Washington taking out reading glasses and saying “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for, I have grown not only gray, but almost blind in the service of my country” not only moved his men to cease threatening mutiny but even to weep like infants.
The two other parts of the work stand above the rest for their detail: the descriptions of Washington’s involvement in the French and Indian War and his career as president of the United States. Flexner makes it very clear that Washington was not a natural commander. During the French and Indian War, Washington often complained about the lack of support given to him by the Virginia House of Burgesses, had difficulty waging effective campaigns against the wily Indians, and made the terrible blunder of ambushing a French diplomatic mission, killing the ambassador before the French made clear the nature of their mission and firing ceased. However, Washington showed himself to be a very brave man. Never becoming wounded during the heat of battle earned him the legend of being invulnerable to gunfire. This legend was further bolstered by often personally leading men into the thickest part of battle in the Revolutionary War.
One becomes amazed by the animus Washington endured during his time as president of the United States. Most of it came from Americans who wished to aid France against Britain during the time following the French Revolution. Washington felt that the new nation could not undergo another war with Britain so soon after the revolution and needed to foster good economic relations with Britain. For these policies, Washington was particularly scorned by his fellow southerners, who mostly belonged to the Pro-French Republican party. (The modern-day Democratic party has its origins in this party, sometimes known as Democratic-Republican party or Jeffersonian Republicans.) Washington relied upon Hamilton more than any other member of his cabinet, and this man was more loyal to Washington during the storms of his presidency than any other.
And so, this work offers a great sketch of Washington’s character and wonderful detail on Washington’s presidency in particular. Flexner’s prose reads very easily. Perhaps, this book is one of the best introductions one can read concerning the Father of Our Country.