Friday, May 31, 2013

Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner

I read Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Flexner after seeing it displayed prominently in a book store. It actually is not a new book; it was written in 1974, but maybe it is experiencing a comeback!

The historian, Flexner, pulls no punches, but neither aims to write a “hit piece.” He tells the story of George Washington from his childhood to his death. Flexner had previously written a four-volume set on George Washington and therefore was intimately familiar with the epic scope such a figure demanded. Yet he decided, not to condense, but to write a new book on Washington that would fill a single volume. Because of the epic scope, the reader really comes to know Washington intimately.

However, because Washington is the closest America has to a saint, we are used to seeing him portrayed solely as a role model. No doubt he is a role model, but he is also human. We see him disagree with other near-saints, like Jefferson and Hamilton. We see these great men abandon him in his second term. The author repeatedly puts forth the notion that at the end of his life, Washington began to suffer from age-related confusion (without any evidence, I might add). If true, it certainly was disheartening to me to picture this great man stumbling in any way.

I love how the author portrays the bumps along Washington’s path and the lessons he learned. For example, after a humiliating defeat while serving with the British in the French and Indian war, Washington tucks away the knowledge that the British CAN be defeated. Repeatedly, he learned during the War of Independence that it was better to stay alive to fight another day, than to lose in a slaughter. 

Upon his death, the reader really feels the loss of this great man. He wore the weight of the responsibilities he shouldered and it ultimately led to his untimely death. He gave all for his country and left it far better than he found it. We do well in imitate him and reflect on his character. 

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