Commentary Magazine


Washington: The Indispensable Man, by James Thomas Flexner

Washington: The Indispensable Man.
by James Thomas Flexner.
Little, Brown. 423 pp. $12.50.

This admirable biography is condensed from James Thomas Flexner’s earlier four-volume work, which began to appear in 1965 and was finished two years ago. Actually, the present work is more a summation than a condensation, since it has been largely rewritten and occasionally reorganized. The narrative proceeds at a breathtaking clip, passing over Washington’s first forty-three years in seventy pages and devoting only a hundred more to the entire Revolution. These limits of space force Flexner to omit some of the delightful detail of his earlier books. For instance, we miss the Rules of Civility, copied out by the young George: “In the presence of others, sing not to yourself with a humming noise nor drum with your fingers or feet”; “Kill no vermin, as fleas, lice, ticks, etc. in the sight of others”; “Cleanse not your teeth with the tablecloth”; and so on. Some illuminating chapters of the earlier work, like the study of Washington’s art collection, are missing altogether. Flexner, who is also a distinguished historian of American art, may have thought this chapter a self-indulgence, but the discussion of Washington’s taste for wild American landscapes shows better than anything else in the book the extent to which our first President was shaped by the American frontier. And once or twice one has the feeling that the rewritten, condensed passages overstate points that were presented with more scholarly nuance in the original. What remains, however, is still the best part of the work. In this one volume, we have an uncluttered and coherent account of Washington’s development.

In his discussion of the American Revolution, Flexner returns several times to the theme of Washington’s inexperience in military matters, until one wonders whether he might not be exaggerating the point simply to guard against the charge of hero-worship. In one sense, of course, the charge of inexperience is undeniably true. In 1753, at the age of twenty-one, Washington had led a suprise attack on a party of French and Indians that sparked the Seven Years’ War and earned him an ignominious reputation in the eyes of everyone but his colonial contemporaries. Later, as a volunteer adviser to General Braddock, he distinguished himself for bravery in the midst of a bloody ambush of British forces by the French and Indians—the worst disaster in Anglo-American history. This, together with a two-year stint as Colonel of the Virginia Regiment, was the extent of Washington’s military training when he was called upon to be commander-in chief of a New England insurrection in 1775. Flexner makes it plain that Washington was not feigning modesty when he told the Continental Congress, “I beg it may be remembered, by every gentleman in this room, that I, this day, declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.”

Yet military greatness depends on far more than technical experience. There were times when the revolutionary army was kept together, it seemed, only by Washington’s force of will. And if Washington lacked an extensive grasp of 18th-century military science, he more than made up for it by his remarkable strategic insight, which took full advantage of American terrain. When Washington evacuated Long Island and New York and began his withdrawal across New Jersey in late 1776, he may have been following the dictates of a prudence learned from brooding over his impetuous behavior twenty years earlier. But he was also providing a masterful demonstration of a strategic retreat into a protected hinterland, a doctrine later codified by Clausewitz (and more recently plagiarized by Mao Tse-tung) .

In the Christmas battle of Trenton, Washington showed what an irregular force could do to an overextended occupying army. His troops could move more quickly and infiltrate behind the lines of the less mobile enemy. Attacking supply lines, showing up where least expected, receiving aid from local farmers who had previously feigned loyalty to the occupying army, his revolutionaries recovered two-thirds of their four-month-long retreat in the space of two weeks. Such warfare has a very contemporary sound, yet it all took place two centuries ago on the plains of New Jersey.

One can easily overdo this line of argument, however. The Trenton campaign was Washington’s high point as a strategist. Other battles were won by subordinates or, in the case of Yorktown, by French “military advisers.” Yet it is to Washington in the field that we must look for some sense of the personality that historians have had so much trouble in bringing to life. One commonly hears Washington described as cold or remote. Certainly to his men, he was an imposing figure, dignified, self-restrained, and physically impressive. (Flexner emphasizes that Washington, standing 6’2”, was an athletic giant.) But he was also affable, bantering, and particularly lively in the officers’ mess.

Although Washington is properly remembered for his moderation and clemency toward the Tories in his jurisdiction, he was not a man to cross. When General Charles Lee, a former rival for the Continental command, failed to press an attack at the Battle of Monmouth, Washington flew into a rage of legendary proportions. (Flexner observes, “Every type of American has wished to make Washington an exemplar of his favorite activity, and thus it has been often repeated that on this occasion Washington established a record for eloquent profane swearing.”) If Washington occasionally lost control of his furious temper, he was also, in very unusual circumstances, capable of holding a sustained grudge. Early in 1778, at the time of Valley Forge, several officers and politicians tried to force Washington to resign, alleging his incompetence. A public outcry squelched the attempt (later called the “Conway Cabal” after one leader). But Washington would not let the matter rest, and encouraged his aides to seek out duels with his enemies.

Rather than emphasizing these human qualities, the grade-school version of Washington prefers to stress his virtue, devotion to duty, personal integrity, and the like. These qualities he possessed, and they deserve emulation. But grade schools do as much damage to history as Sunday schools do to religion. By hammering names, dates, and a few eroded clichés into their students at an early age, they succeed mainly in imparting a permanent distaste for the subject.

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If such mental barriers prevent a close look at Washington’s personality, an entirely separate sort of myopia has left his role in political history seriously out of focus. During the first third of this century, historians of the early republic seem to have been preoccupied with finding parallels to the class conflicts of the Progressive era and the New Deal. Their work concentrated on the feud between the “Hamiltonians” and the “Jeffersonians,” and they were on the whole biased in favor of Jefferson. This emphasis has resulted in a distorted picture of Washington’s administration.

Flexner succeeds in restoring the proper balance. He remembers, as the Hamilton-Jefferson school forgets, that during Washington’s Presidency Washington was the President. Washington made the final decisions, and he acted on his own principles. During the controversies raised by French-British fighting, for example, he was much less favorably disposed to the British than was Hamilton, and much more skeptical of the French Revolution than was Jefferson. Washington tried to keep the two men in his cabinet to get the benefit of both viewpoints; each party to the feud tried to turn Washington against the other, or at least to neutralize his opponent’s influence, but the antagonists shrink in stature when measured against Washington’s concern for the public good.

In Flexner’s perspective, Hamilton no longer appears as the eminence grise of the administration. Although Hamilton did draft many of Washington’s statements, even after he had left the cabinet, Flexner maintains that he wrote only what Washington wanted him to, knowing from experience that the President would delete anything he disagreed with. On several important matters, Washington rejected Hamilton’s advice and accepted Jefferson’s. In Flexner’s presentation, Hamilton is diminished to a brilliant subaltern, who derived his political prestige from Washington. In short, although Washington needed Hamilton, Hamilton needed Washington more.

But Flexner is on the whole sympathetic to Hamilton, who will be the subject of his next biography. It is Jefferson who receives the full brunt of his disapproval. As a cabinet officer, Jefferson was a statesman; as a party leader, he was an inspiring radical propagandist. But the attempt to combine the two roles, when his faction was opposed to the government he served, involved a certain degree of duplicity. During the debate on the Neutrality Proclamation, says Flexner, Jefferson helped to draft a policy which he simultaneously denounced in confidential letters to his friends Madison and Monroe. In the “Citizen Genet” affair, Secretary of State Jefferson at first encouraged the emissary from revolutionary France but then backed off when Genet embarked on a disastrous attempt to appeal to the American people over Washington’s head. Genet, at least, knew enough of the situation to claim afterward that Jefferson had doublecrossed him.

Washington has sometimes been portrayed as an agent of the moneyed class, an anti-democrat, even a proto-monarch. Much of this misunderstanding is a result of Jefferson’s attempt to confuse the record. Even more, however, has come from the stubborn refusal of the 20th century to understand the political vocabulary of the 18th. In one of the more enlightening passages of the book, Flexner explains why Washington, in the immediate aftermath of the Whiskey Rebellion, attacked the Democratic Societies, a proto-political party encouraged by Jefferson. His oblique reference in his Sixth Annual Address to Congress to “certain self-created societies” was interpreted by Jefferson as “an attack on the freedom of discussion, the freedom of writing, printing, and publishing.” But Washington really intended, notes Flexner, to warn against factions which organized themselves outside of constitutional institutions, and threatened to pervert the relation of a constituency to its representative, bending and exploiting local grievances for the national purposes of a group of men standing outside the government. Washington was convinced that the Whiskey Rebellion had resulted from such agitation.

Attitudes have changed since Washington’s time, thanks largely to the work of Jefferson, but the former’s basic position still has some validity. The influence of national parties over Congressional constituencies is limited; reformers who try to extend that influence are more out of touch with the nature of our institutions than they care to admit.

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Even more difficult for our impatient age to grasp is the supremely 18th-century virtue of prudence. The paramount exercise of this virtue in Washington’s life came in his treatment of slavery. In a chapter which is probably the book’s most important contribution to scholarship on Washington, Flexner illustrates Washington’s steadily growing aversion to the institution. As a revolutionary leader, Washington knew that slavery would be fundamentally incompatible with American liberty. This conviction grew stronger after the war and was a major factor in Washington’s rejection of Jefferson’s slave-based agrarianism. But Washington was unable to oppose the institution on an effective scale. After the Revolution, he offered to lend his prestige to any politically viable emancipation movement in Virginia, but none developed. At the same time, the larger issue of national unity took precedence in his mind, in the form of the movement toward a Constitutional Convention. The success of this movement depended on Washington’s prestige. If Washington had squandered his reputation on a quixotic campaign against slavery, argues Flexner, “he would undoubtedly have failed to achieve the end of slavery, and he would certainly have made impossible the role he played in the Constitutional Convention and the Presidency.”

This argument has something of an old-fashioned ring to it, which some might not like to hear. In a sense, the whole tone of this work is old-fashioned—Flexner does not hesitate to praise Washington, for example, for his “political virtue.” The course of modern scholarship has erected all sorts of prejudices against thinking in such terms. Yet the words are undeniably just. Flexner has rendered an invaluable service by restoring to us a mature and intelligent portrait of Washington, the republican hero. One hopes we are still capable of appreciating the example.

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