on January 19, 2000
I only write reviews of the books I feel very strongly about. James Thomas Flexner is, along with Douglas Freeman, considered to be the preiminant Washington scholar. He also happens to be a world class writer. For those of you who do not have the time, or interest, in reading Flexner's monumental 4 volume biography of Washingon, you could not find a better single volume on the life of the most important man in American history. Most great men turn out to be less great the closer you examine their accomplishments. Washington is one of the few whose legend doesn't go far enough. Read Flexner's book and see why George Washington was an icon in his own lifetime... Adored by the great men of his age, beloved by the people, and a moral example who is as relevant to the American experience today as he was two hundred plus years ago. This is a great work of history and a great read. If I had the power, I would make this book required reading for every American citizen.
on February 13, 2000
Flexner is considered, along with Douglas Freeman, to be the great Washington scholar. His four volume biography is a masterpiece of scholarship and historical writing. However, most readers will not have the time to plow through such a large work. Fortunately, Flexner wrote this fantastic book. He has managed to condense the essence of Washington's remarkable life into this single volume. It is every bit as informed and well written as the larger work, and for the curious, by far the best single volume biography of G.W. Every American should read this book. It's impossible to study GW as presented by Flexner and not be impressed. There is a reason why men such as Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, Madison, et al deferred to Washington. In these pages you will learn why.
on June 9, 1999
Several years ago, I spent Thanksgiving with the parents of a friend of mine and started reading this book based on their reccomendation. Well, this book so inspired me, I've continued with biographies of most of our Founding Fathers(including Flexner's "Young Hamilton") as well as the other Presidents and into the Civil War. James Thomas Flexner brings to life a man whom I only knew as the first President, the guy on the dollar bill, and yes, the one who chopped down the cherry tree. My perspective on American history and the man responsible for such a great piece of our history was completely changed by this book. It reads like a novel, though I admit was a bit rough getting started. Once in, however, I was hooked. This biography takes you through Washington's early years as a child, his courtship struggles and life as a surveyor: then, we travel with our hero through the Revolutionary War, the precarious aftermath and his tenure as the first President of the newly founded nation. Flexner shows us that much of this was, for Washington, a struggle indeed, and he seems very much the reluctant hero, whose journey is destined for greatness in spite of himself and the enormous odds against him. It is an epic journey masterfully navigated by Flexner. This biography is worthy of it's subject. If you are an American, read it.
"Washington: The Indispensable Man" introduces the reader to the personality and career of the Father of Our Country. To many Americans, Washington is largely an unknown quantity, an immovable face on the one dollar bill, known as a Revolutionary War General and First President, but not as a human being. This book shows Washington, hero and failure, surveyor and farmer, soldier and statesman, body and soul.
Son of a minor aristocrat, Washington, unaware that his social standing precluded his advancement beyond the colonial militia, sought positions in the British Navy and Army. A Virginia militiaman, he stumbled into the world's consciousness in 1753 in a minor skirmish with a French party in the area that is now Pittsburgh. In a rematch the next year, the question arose as to whether Washington had fought a French military force or murdered an ambassador. Washington was chastised in battle with the French in 1754, but not before he had created a stir in the chanceries of Europe. Accompanying Gen. Braddock into the wilderness in 1754-5, Washington's failure to convince Braddock that the French-Canadians did not fight like the Continental French had fatal consequences for Braddock. Succeeding to command, Washington extricated the army, thereby becoming the hero of a tragic engagement. This made Washington a military hero in colonial eyes.
Having returned to Virginia, we see Washington, the colonial businessman, managing his plantation. The author gives us an insight into the business of a Virginia planter of Washington's day, a business which involved speculation in western lands as well as the production of tidewater crops. We see Washington, initially, a grower of tobacco and later of wheat and corn, the change made because tobacco tended to wear out the soil and kept the planter is a position of subservience to the British factor who sold his crop and, in return, sold the planter European manufactured goods, all at prices set by the factor.
The coming of the Independence movement found Washington a delegate to the Continental Congress. Flexner reports the forces within Congress which lead to Washington's appointment as Army Commander.
The section on the Revolution is informative while moving at a good pace. The personalities, battles and overall movements of the course of the conflict become clear. Here we meet Marquis de Layfayette, Lighthorse Harry Lee, and Alexander Hamilton and feel the betrayal of Benedict Arnold.
The intervention of the French forces, without which the Revolution would have failed, is skillfully documented. The relationships between the French and the Americans in general and Washington in particular are explored.
Two years after victory at Yorktown we are present at Washington's emotional farewell to his army during which he observed that he had grown "gray and nearly blind in the service of my country." Washington's long-awaited return to Mount Vernon would be merely temporary.
Washington's time at Mount Vernon between 1783 and 1789 were enjoyable years during which he played the roles of planter, canal promoter and host to all who passed by Mount Vernon.
Washington's domestic bliss would end as the need for a new form of government to replace the Articles of Confederation became obvious. Summoned to preside at the Constitutional Convention, Washington understood and carried out the role of the "Indispensable Man", the man without whom his country could not survive. Washington had become a symbol, a presence which made things happen. His availability made a single executive possible.
Throughout his presidency, Washington was more important for what he was, rather than for what he did. Washington, the symbol, was not the substance of his administration. The substance was Alexander Hamilton and, to a lesser extent, Thomas Jefferson and others.
The first term was largely devoted to setting the precedents for his successors. Washington had to set the standard on a variety of issues. The form of address for the president, the extent and form of senatorial "advice and consent", the role of the heads of the executive departments and many other precedents had to be established by trial. The main accomplishments of the first administration were the establishment of the financial underpinnings for the national government and the location of the national capitol. Foreshadowing future problems was the beginning of the break between Hamilton and Jefferson, resulting in the split between Jefferson and Washington.
Washington's desire to retire after one term was frustrated by the fact that he, again, was indispensable to the harmonious continuation of the national government. The second term was to be a disappointing one for Washington as his prestige was no longer sufficient to preserve himself from attack. The return of Jefferson to Monticello made administration totally Hamiltonian. What soon would become partisan politics crept into public affairs. The Whiskey Rebellion would be suppressed in a way which would seem to be an attack on societies allied with Jefferson. Disputes over the treaties with France and England split along the Hamiltonian/Jeffersonian fault lines. Relations with Revolutionary France would prove to be a contentious issue, bringing even Jefferson under suspicion of possible treason. By the end of his second term, Washington was determined to retire from public life permanently.
Washington's long awaited retirement to Mount Vernon lasted only two years. At the time of his return, Mount Vernon was showing the signs of the master's absence during the years of national service. The ground was badly eroded, crop yields were low and the plantation was over staffed with slaves. Washington's decision to neither buy nor sell slaves had left Mount Vernon with more labor than it could profitably employ. Upon Martha's death, the slaves owned by Washington were freed.
At the end of this book the reader is left with an acquaintance with Washington the entrepreneur, soldier, statesman, colonial and national aristocrat, as well as Washington the man. It is an acquaintance we all should make.
on May 20, 2003
This book is the best one-volume biography of Washington I have found. As the title hints, Flexner takes the approach that Washington was an indispensible figure in the period leading up to and through the Revolutionary War, as well as the drafting and ratification of the Constitution and the formation of the first truly republican government. He makes a pretty good argument! This book gave me a much better appreciation of how remarkable Washington was to willingly and conscientiously refuse to assume the autocratic powers that were surely his for the taking, thus setting the precedent for the remarkably peaceful and unopposed transfer of leadership that is the hallmark of the US government to this day (recent presidential elections notwithstanding). If you really want to plumb the depths of Washington's life and career, read the entire multivolume biography by Flexner (from which this book was condensed). If you want a single-volume biography of the "Father of His Country" (who, ironically, was sterile as a matter of fact), you will not be disappointed with this volume--although I would not put it in the David McCullough class of presidential biographies (which is a small class indeed).
on November 30, 2000
In his book, Washington the Indispensable Man, James T. Flexner attempts to show just how important Washington was in the development of this country. Washington was not a diplomat or a great intellect nor was he a master of military strategy. What he was, was a self-made man; a leader of men who commanded respect and loyalty. Without this quiet self-effacing, the Revolutionary War might not have been won. Washington's self control, dignity, common sense and his basic character made him a truly indispensable man for the times. The author subdivides George Washington's life into three major categories: military man, statesman and finally George Washington human being. He gave great insight into all areas. James T. Flexner has done a remarkable job with this book. He brings George Washington alive within its pages. The man is certainly more than the myth. The book flows and takes us from a young Washington of 1732 to the death of a true hero in 1799. There are not an abundance of maps or pictures in the book, but what there is, is sufficient. They enhance the book rather than detract from it. This book is very eash to read and extremely interesting. Mr. Flexner drives home the point that George Washington was an ordinary man who did extraordinary things during extraordinary times.
on February 19, 2001
This biography of the U.S.'s father figure was very informative, and gives equal attention to the important points of Washington's life. Flexner did a good job of highlighting the key parts of Washington's career: his war-time service, and his activities as President. This book does pass fairly quickly through Washington's childhood and adolescence, which I wished to have learned more about, but it is a 1 volume summation, so that should be expected. The author was very fair and objective in this book. While he sees Washington as having been an average, if not below average, soldier, Flexner does show Washington to have excelled in other areas such as leadership and management which became very critical to his success as President. So for anyone looking for a reasonably quick cover of Washington's public career, with a shorter background of his private life, I definitely recommend this book.
on March 17, 2004
The passing of time, unnecessary mythologizing and more recently bitter revisionism all have served to obscure and distort this giant of the Revolution. So much of what we are today we owe to this man who placed service to duty above his desires. But who was he....really?
Not an aristocrat, nor the descendant of one. Self made to be certain. Expansive and curious like so many others of his age. Placed by history time and time again exactly where his unique qualities and experiences could have the greatest influence. To use a term of the times, "Providential".
Not a great general in the classic sense. He had trouble protecting his flanks and only fought 9 battles, winning only 3. But he held the army together. A brillaint executive he could divine the talents of others and empowered where they could have the greatest effect. Humble (the rarest of all leadership qualities any more), gracious, focused, unbending and determined in resolve.
He transcended regional differences yet could not stop, nor perhaps did he even see how those differences were on a collision course to civil war long before it came. If only he could have imparted his tolerance and wisdom to his proteges perhaps north and south could have co existed, or separated peacefully.
Can one one book really convey all this? This one does. This is Washington with a clarity that only a great writer and a great scholar could deliver. My only disappointment was the lack of footnotes and a bibliography.
on February 9, 2005
The biggest problem I had chosing to read this book was deciding to read this or Joseph Ellis' book on George Washington. I have a feeling that the Ellis book was more insightful and provocative (as was "American Sphinx", about Thomas Jefferson), though I chose this book because the author had previously written what is considered the gold-standard, highly acclaimed, 4 volume work on George Washington, and this book was slightly longer, 400 pages vs 250 pages. The Flexner book is 35 years old, however, as opposed to the Ellis's book, which is brand new, but I don't think this made a difference.
Regardless, the book reads like butter (unlike Chernow's Hamilton), covers a lot of information, integrates lots of primary source quotes well, and does a good job of providing background material against which to understand Washington. You should know that Flexner states in the introduction that this book is not just a patchwork, rehash of his 4 volume opus, but a total re-write. And that is what I perceived. [As an aside, you may want to download Washington's Farewell Address from the internet, it's about 8 pages long. There is a whole chapter on it in the book, but the text of the Address does not appear.]
The "problem" with writing a "complete" biography about Washington is that there is so much information on him. For between 25 and 40 years, Washington was the most important political figure in the colonies and the United States, so doing an all-inclusive biography on Washington in one volume and making it meaningful (not just a bunch of hackneyed summaries) and full of primary source material is difficult. In this regard you couldn't ask for a better book to read than Flexner's.
Furthermore, competing texts on Washington by good authors, who have done thier own research and drawn their own conclusions, will likely cover many different aspects and details. Ellis's and Flexner's books probably complement each other.
The Founding Father's and the creation of the United States is an absolutely fascinating and relevent topic. This is the seventh major book/biography I've read in this topic in the past year.
on December 25, 2001
Though a much-condensed version of Flexner's five-volume biography of Washington, this book managfes to do an excellent job of tracing the life of our first president. As with all good biographies, it describes the significant events in his life and relates several anecdotes that help make him seem more alive to the contemporary reader, but what it does particularly well is describe America and Washington's influence upon the national character. This is a difficult task because during Washington's lifetime America transformed itself from a collection of individual colonies into a confederation that revolted against its mother country and finally into a unified nation. America was in a constant state of upheaval and Washington oversaw and directed its entire evolution. Flexner's ability to not only guide the reader through Washington's life, but also to show the impact of his actions, is what sets this book apart from most biographies of Washington I have read and is why I would highly recommend it to all who have an interest in colonial history or politics or simply want to learn more about this "Indispensable Man."