The Indispensable Man

It may not be the popular or politically correct thing to believe, but I hold fast to the opinion that our founding fathers, men like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and the rest are among the greatest men who have ever lived. Our nation would be blessed to have even one such great men at its founding. The fact that we had so many great men must surely attest that America is under the protection of divine providence. Of these great men, George Washington stands head and shoulders above the rest. For his contribution to the cause of liberty, leading the fight for American independence, and then not making himself a king or president for life, Washington is surely one of the greatest men who have ever lived.

It is no easy task to write a biography of Washington. For too many people, Washington seems to be too distant a marble statue of implacable virtue that normal people cannot relate to. The man, with his very real flaws, disappears behind the image. More recently, there is a tendency, among the ignorant woke, to dismiss Washington as merely a slaveholder, never mind the fact that Washington grew up in a time in which slavery was accepted and uncontroversial, that he came to have misgivings about the institution of slavery, and he, almost alone among his contemporary planter class, actually made a real effort to prepare his slaves for the freedom he believed they would gain when slavery, being obsolete, would die out. A candid assessment of Washington’s life and works runs the risk of seeming to be a hagiography, and yet to focus too much on his flaws, does the man an injustice.

James Thomas Flexner’s Washington: The Indispensible Man tries to thread the needle of writing a biography of Washington that makes him be a paragon of virtue while not dwelling overmuch on his flaws. In this effort, Flexner is mostly successful doing a passable job of relating Washington’s life and accomplishments and establishing that Washington was, indeed, the indispensable man without whom the American colonies could not have gained their independence. If you want to know about Washington’s life and accomplishments, this is a good book to read.

I cannot help, however, but feel a little disappointed when I finished Washinton: The Indispensable Man. It is a good work but there are some flaws. For one thing, there are no maps. This might be a fatal flaw in the sections dealing with Washington’s military career in the French and Indian War, and particularly in the Revolutionary War. How is the reader expected to follow the movements of the Continental and British armies without any maps? How can we understand the course of the battles? If I were not already familiar with the battles of the War of Independence, I would have been lost.

The lack of maps is somewhat frustrating, but I had a more serious problem with this book, it is too short, or too long. The problem is that Washington: The Indispensable Man is not the right length for what Flexner is trying to do. It is too long for a mere summary, but not long enough to get to know Washington. The author seems to hint at things but then moves on without going any deeper. I learned about Washington’s deeds, but I did not feel that I got to know Washington the man. I do not feel I got to know any of the people Washington interacted with, his friends, mentors, officers, subordinates. Flexner mentions names, tells a little about what they did and how Washington acted, and then moves on. I don’t get to know how Washington really felt about people he shared his life with.

Part of the problem is that Washington: The Indispensable Man is a condensation of James Thomas Flexner’s earlier four-volume biography of Washington. Flexner asserts in the preface that the text in this book is almost entirely new and not a series of patched together extracts, and while I have no reason to doubt his word, the book does indeed read as if he took out selections from his longer work. It summarizes but leaves tantalizing hints that there is more.

As I said, I can recommend this book to anyone wanting to know more about Washington, but I fear that the reader is going to end the book unsatisfied. It is a good book to begin to learn about Washington, but not to end one’s study of the great man.