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Notes on Washington: the Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner [Jan. 19th, 2009|09:59 pm]
Christopher Bradley
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I just got done reading Washington: the Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner. I am actually slightly embarrassed that I don't know more about the Revolutionary period and the major players in it. Even from here, names like Napoleon and Frederick the Great seem more significant than Washington and Adams. And when Americans do take an interest in their own history, it's almost inevitably World War II and the Civil War that spurs their interest - not early America, the Revolutionary War and the Founding Fathers. So I decided to change that and over the next few months I'll be reading a fair bit about them.

Full disclosure: in recent years, George Washington has become something of a hero of mine. I know he was flawed, yeah, yeah, but I kept finding myself talking about American history with someone (often a European) and saying, "We were very lucky that Washington lived." As many of the Founding Fathers, themselves, were aware, most revolutions end up badly. Adams, after engineering Washington's generalship of the Continental Army was terrified that they were replacing a foreign tyrant with a domestic one, and Thomas Jefferson also worried about how easy it would be for Washington to become a tyrant.

But . . . he never wanted that kind of job. During the Revolutionary War even though the Continental Congress had given him the power of requisition at sword point he never used it. He actively sought to protect Tories insofar as they didn't commit out-and-out treason because he insisted that they were Americans. As the Articles of Confederation were being drawn, he opposed them believing that we needed to be one country. When offered to be king, he turned it down. When offered to lead an officer's rebellion against the Continental Congress, he talked them out of it. Between the end of the Revolutionary War and his Presidency, he did not capitalize on his prestige for personal profit (indeed, giving away state gifts if force don him). When asked what they should call the President of the United States - after it being suggested the proper term should be "your majesty" or at least "your highness" he demanded "Mr. President". Rather than turn the Presidency into a personal fiefdom of absolute rule, he treated the office was the first amongst equals, championed the responsible transfer of power from one President to the next, and set the stage for limited administrative control of government - and he left after two terms in office.

In most other revolutions, what happens is the hero of the revolution sets themselves up as an absolute power. It didn't happen here and much of that was because George Washington, personally, refused to allow it to happen. At every turn, he refused to accept monarchial authority. That's just stunning. We got very lucky and these are some of my reasons why I have found Washington increasingly heroic.

(And, indeed, speaks to part of the reason why many people have trouble regarding him as a hero. He wasn't a Napoleon or Frederick the Great. He was a reluctant warrior and by no means a brilliant one - he lead the Continental Army are part of a political movement to oust the British. He believed that if the people wanted to be free, the British might as well "drive their columns into the sea" but if the people were willing to accept British rule no effort of arms could lead to victory. This . . . nuanced position doesn't sit well because it isn't easy for young men go to, "Oh, man, he KICKED ASS" as they do about Lee or German generals in WWII.)

I know that Washington had serious, serious flaws. Off the top of my head: he owned slaves and no mealy-mouthed justifications about how he was uncomfortable with the institution or how he treated his own slaves very well by the standards of the time can invalidate the brute fact that George Washington owned slaves. By the standards of our day, he was also hopelessly misogynistic. He was paternalist, he delighted in being a "local patriarch". He was an 18th century rich white man, in short. In some people's eyes, those things (and others) invalidates him from the company of heroes. I don't take offense with such a position. If I was, say, black, I'm not sure that I could regard the slave-owning Washington as a hero just because he didn't set himself up as a king. While I acknowledge the validity of those positions, I don't currently share them.

But on to the book itself. It seems to me to be a potboiler sort of biography. Flexner is considered to be one of the chief biographers of Washington, but his style is very . . . traditional. He talks a great deal about politics and war but only tantalizingly about the man. He shows us hints - such that Washington's mother was a harridan who verbally abused and manipulated him - but offers no real details. About his personal life there is next to nothing because the focus is relentlessly on Washington's private life. I am more interested in the person than a list of deeds, and through much of the book that's what's there: a list of deeds.

Flexner, despite saying he would examine Washington's flaws, is obviously admiring of the man. He would talk all the time about his "majestic physique" and go on endlessly about Washington's virtues. He doesn't seem to seriously address any of his supposed flaws until the final years of Washington's life where they could be attributed to senility. The example which sticks out in my mind is, as a young man, Washington was flirty with women but not particularly successful with them. Flexner attributes this - and I'm not making this up! - to Washington being so masculine and exuding such manliness that frail wimmenkind couldn't handle it. That was Washington's "problem" with women. I rolled my eyes, sometimes. No author can really be objective, but I don't think Flexner tried very hard. He loved his subject and it shows constantly.

Still, I went through it fast enough. so it wasn't too bad. Other than his admiration for Washington, it's pretty hard to see how Flexner was promoting a political agenda - he got that, right, at least; a great many writers who write about the Founding Fathers have something to sell. Flexner wasn't overtly trying to sell anything (though I believe I detected a sort of rightist leaning that many traditional biographers of national heroes have, but it was slight). It helped that despite being about those things I largely knew that I still learned a great deal. In particular, when discussing Washington's early life I felt for the first time that colonial America really was a colony, an honest-to-god colony with honest-to-god colonial oppression and metropolitan arrogance. I learned a great deal about the political situation between the US, England and France during those times, too - none of it reflecting very well on the European powers. I was disappointed that the Indians weren't mentioned more often than they were; I sense that Flexner, with American imperial arrogance, didn't really consider them important enough to mention often (or perhaps he was just trying to avoid a national disgrace). I also got a strong sense that the idea that the Union is under constant jeopardy goes to the earliest days of the Union. Apparently Americans have always felt that the end of the US was always right around the corner and have always pined for some mythological past when things were better.

The writing was academy-lite, which meant that the pretense was kept to a minimum but I could still feel the sting of unnecessary high-falutin' diction. Well, at least he got me to look up what an ague is besides "being sick", right?

The section on Washington's death was touching. It saddened me that he died, even though he's been dead for nearly 210 years.

On whole, I'd say it's a somewhat distant but useful entry point for those interested in George Washington. Flexner is gentle enough with the subject that just about the only person who would be offended is someone with very powerful views going in and, finding Flexner doesn't share them, getting cheesed off about them.