Washington: The Indispensable Man

Washington: The Indispensable Man

by James Thomas Flexner


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After more than two decades, this dramatic and concise single-volume distillation of James Thomas Flexner's definitive four-volume biography George Washington, which received a Pulitzer Prize citation and a National Book Award for the fourth volume, has itself become an American classic. Now in a new trade paperback edition, this masterful work explores the Father of Our Country - sometimes an unpopular hero, a man of great contradictions, but always a towering historical figure, who remains, as Flexner writes in these pages, "a fallible human being made of flesh and blood and spirit - not a statue of marble and wood... a great and good man." The author unflinchingly paints a portrait of Washington: slave owner, brave leader, man of passion, reluctant politician, and fierce general. His complex character and career are neither glorified nor vilified here; rather, Flexner sets up a brilliant counterpoint between Washington's public and private lives and gives us a challenging look at the man who has become as much a national symbol as the American flag.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316286169
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 02/22/1994
Series: Back Bay Book
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 176,106
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.25(d)
Age Range: 13 Years

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The Indispensable Man

By James Thomas Flexner


Copyright © 1974 James Thomas Flexner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-4304-5


A Powerful Apprenticeship


No American is more completely misunderstood than George Washington. He is generally believed to have been, by birth and training, a rich, conservative, British-oriented Virginia aristocrat. As a matter of fact, he was, for the environment in which he moved, poor during his young manhood. He never set foot in England or, indeed, any part of Europe. When at seventeen he began making his own living, it was as a surveyor, defining tracts of forest on the fringes of settlement. Soon the wilderness claimed him, first as an envoy seeking out the French in frozen primeval woods and then, for almost five years, as an Indian fighter.

No other President of the United States before Andrew Jackson was as much shaped by the wilderness as Washington, and he had less formal education than did Jackson, than Lincoln even. Both Jackson and Lincoln studied law, while Washington's total schooling hardly went beyond what we should consider the elementary grades.

In all his long life, Washington never heard of Sulgrave Manor, the ancient British house far back in his lineage, which has been reverently restored as a relic of his transatlantic ancestry. By the time he was born, the family had lost all memory of their British origin. The first settler, John Washington, was an impoverished adventurer who reached Virginia in 1675. The "Wild West" was then on the Atlantic seacoast, and John might have been a character — not the hero — in a modern Western. He was implicated in the murder of five Indian ambassadors; he was a most unscrupulous businessman; and after the wife who was George's ancestress died, he married in succession two sisters who had been accused before him, when he had sat as justice of the peace, one with keeping a bawdy-house and the other with being the governor's whore.

As Virginia grew, the Washington family prospered modestly. No member ever reached the social and political pinnacle of serving on the King's Council, but they associated with members and sometimes even married their daughters. Had George's childhood proceeded smoothly, he would have been raised in the conventional manner of the minor Virginia gentry. But his childhood did not proceed smoothly.

Legend has clustered around George's father, Augustine Washington, but we know for sure little about him beyond what is revealed in business records. These show him to have been restless, apprehensive, unsure, making deals which he subsequently denied making. He was often in the law courts. He married twice. Two sons survived from his first marriage, and from his second, five children of whom George was the oldest.

The future hero saw the light on February 11, 1732,in a cheaply built house, now long vanished, near where Pope's Creek empties into the Potomac. As an infant, he was carried some forty miles upriver to a story-and-a-half farmhouse on a bluff (eventually to be known as Mount Vernon). When the boy was six, the family moved again, this time to the farm across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg that was to be George's childhood home. An inventory made when he was eleven reveals modest comfort. The house had six rooms, four below and two above, into which were crowded thirteen beds and one couch. To service these, the Washingtons owned six good pairs of sheets, ten inferior pairs, and seventeen pillow cases. Their proudest possessions were described as "plate": one soup spoon, eighteen small spoons, seven teaspoons, a watch, and a sword for a total value of £25 10s. Although they owned two china tea sets, they had only eleven china plates: most of the Washingtons' utensils were whittled from wood. However, Augustine owned twenty slaves: seven able-bodied, eight of moderate value, and five not capable of work.

Washington spent his childhood in what was for rural Virginia a lively place. Transatlantic vessels beat up the Rappahannock outside his windows to Fredericksburg, and a ferry plied across to the town from the Washington property. There was a perpetual trickle of travelers, some of whom found a temporary haven in the Washingtons' many beds.

The intention was that George would, like his father and two older half brothers, go to school in England. He was later to disapprove of foreign schooling as weakening the passion of Americans for freedom. In his case, the test was not made. When he was eleven, his father died, carrying away with him any hope of George's receiving education abroad. The disappointment haunted George for years.

Augustine Washington left the major parts of his modest property to his two older sons, George's half brothers. The house in which the family lived, Ferry Farm, was eventually to come to George, but his mother was in control, and throughout a long life she refused to relinquish the property.

Mary Ball Washington was given neither to acquiescence nor compromise. Orphaned early, she had grown up largely independent, and by the time she married, at twenty-five, she had been an old maid (according to Virginia mores) for a number of years. After the death of Augustine Washington she never married again. The passion of her life became her son George, and it was a very possessive passion. Even when he was Commander in Chief, even when he was President, she objected to his occupations, complaining violently that he was ungratefully neglecting his duties to her.

After his father's death, George was cast, under his mother's demanding eyes, as the captain of a household team made up of his younger brothers and sister. At the age of eleven, himself a substitute father, the mainstay and main victim of a termagant mother, the future father of his country escaped as often as he could. He found a substitute father of his own in his half brother Lawrence, who was his elder by fourteen years.

Lawrence had already fired George with martial ardor by becoming an officer in an American regiment enrolled in the British regular army for an expedition against the Spanish West Indian stronghold of Cartagena. How the boy, who was all his life to have a passion for military regalia, must have admired his brother's red uniform! Then there had been the exciting departure, followed by rumors and dispatches concerning the brother's adventure, and at last a happy homecoming. Lawrence's complaints of how the officers from Great Britain had humiliated the American regiment did not (although they surely remained in George's memory) prevent the boy from visualizing for himself a career in the British regular army.

Probably owing to the passion of his mother, Washington's childhood schoolbooks have been preserved. At their most advanced, they show him studying elementary geometry and the zodiacal configuration of the stars. Concerning where Washington received instruction there is only one solid piece of evidence. It shows him attending an unnamed school while he was staying at the farm Lawrence had inherited and renamed Mount Vernon, after Admiral Edward Vernon, who had commanded the Cartagena expedition.

Surely more important to Washington's education than this or any school was a nearby mansion called Belvoir. Although its inhabitants described it as "a tolerable cottage" in a "wooded world," Washington considered the handsome brick structure, with its two elaborately furnished sitting rooms, the height of elegance and grandeur. This was the American headquarters of the great English Fairfax family. Under a royal grant, which Virginians were perpetually protesting, Lord Fairfax owned a sizable section of the colony. The master of Belvoir, William Fairfax, was a cousin of his Lordship, his Lordship's American agent, and consequently one of the most powerful men in Virginia. Perhaps the first indication of George's unusual qualities was the way in which the young boy was taken into the bosom of the Fairfax clan.

At Belvoir, the future revolutionary had his first close view of British upper-class life. Even if he did not realize it at the time, the vision was equivocal. However well placed he was now in Virginia, William Fairfax had been born into his aristocratic family as the insignificant younger son of a younger son. Prevented by his elevated caste from struggling for his own living but with practically no inheritance, he had been completely dependent on having the grander members of his family use their influence to keep him employed in ways suited to his station. Although he made his motto "I trust in God I shall never procure the disesteem of any relation," he was given a tremendous kicking-around before he finally found his seemingly safe position in Virginia. His son George William Fairfax (who might inherit the title and the great estates if certain deaths were not counteracted by births in certain bedchambers) had been so maltreated by toplofty relatives that he had been beaten into a cringing weakling who became a disciple to the much younger — by seven years — George Washington. And when the great Lord Fairfax came himself to Belvoir, he proved to be entirely dominated by three obsessions: a consciousness of power, a hatred of women, and a love of fox hunting. He treated the William Fairfaxes — and also Lawrence Washington, who had married one of William's daughters — with an offhand mixture of generosity and brutality which they had to put up with since their prosperity depended on his whims.

His Lordship was taken with young George, who was so naturally gifted at riding to hounds. The Fairfax influence would have got the lad into the British navy — with what effect on future history? — if his mother had not made such a fuss at his deserting her that he unpacked bags already shut. Next, the Fairfaxes propelled him in the exactly opposite direction. He accompanied a surveying party assigned to lay out Fairfax land on the frontier over the Blue Ridge in the Shenandoah Valley. Washington was then sixteen. It was his first real adventure. Here is how he described his initial encounter with a backwoods lodging:

"We got our supper and was lighted into a room and I, not being as good a woodsman as the rest of my company, stripped myself very orderly and went in to the bed, as they called it, when to my surprise, I found it to be nothing but a little straw matted together, without sheets or anything else, but only one threadbare blanket, with double its weight of vermin, such as lice, fleas, etc., and I was glad to get up, as soon as the light was carried from us. [He does not seem to have wanted to offend the landlord by leaping out of bed.] I put on my clothes, and lay as my companions [on the floor]." The next day they found a more civilized inn where "we cleaned ourselves to get rid of the game we catched the night before."

Washington studied practical surveying; swam horses across a river swollen by snow melting in the mountains; met a party of Indians carrying one scalp who, when inspired by a gift of rum, performed a war dance; got lost in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where he encountered a rattlesnake. He found it all exhilarating. During thirty-one days of blustery March and April weather, he gave to the American West a part of his heart he was never to regain.

Washington had gone along on this trip largely for the fun of it. However, it was clear to the teenager that he had to make some money. He was to write again and again that men judged their condition less by what it actually was than by comparison. Although he never lacked for food or warm clothes, he would have been ashamed to take the friends he was making to his mother's run-down farm. On one recorded occasion, he could not get away to some dances because he could not buy feed for his horse. And so at the age of seventeen he set himself up as a surveyor over the Blue Ridge. At eighteen, he was able to make his first land purchase: 1,459 acres on Bullskin Creek, a tributary of the Shendandoah.

When staying at Lord Fairfax's hunting lodge, he wrote "Dear friend Robin" that he might, "was my heart disengaged, pass my time very pleasantly, as there's a very agreeable young lady lives in the same house ... but as that's only adding fuel to the fire, it makes me the more uneasy for, by often and unavoidably being in company with her, revives my former passion for your Low Land Beauty, whereas was I to live more retired from young women, I might in some measure alleviate my sorrows by burying that chaste and troublesome passion in the grave of oblivion or eternal forgetfulness," etc., etc.

The Low Land Beauty could have been any one of many girls, for Washington was in love with love. He even wrote poetry — and very badly it turned out. He was not, indeed, much of a success with girls. Very tall for his generation — over six feet — with reddish hair and gray-blue eyes, his face massive, his shoulders narrow for his height but his hands and feet tremendous, George exuded such masculine power as frightens young women just wakening to the opposite sex. He enjoyed making playful compliments and flirting in a ritualistic manner, yet his gaiety was seemingly belied by a slowness of speech more suited to the careful expression of profound thought. His lack of surface vivacity allowed other young men to cut him out with many a pretty girl.

As Washington was beginning to find his way in the world, a slow and excruciating tragedy darkened over him. His beloved brother Lawrence came down with virulent tuberculosis. George accompanied his dying friend to Barbados, in the hope that a tropical climate would help. This was the only ocean trip Washington ever took, the only occasion on which he went outside the limits of the future United States. He kept a boyish diary, but in all his later writings he never mentioned the journey or used a metaphor that revealed he had been in the tropics. As Lawrence coughed his life away, the experience had been too sad. Washington himself sickened with smallpox. This (since he recovered) was a hidden boon: it made him immune to the greatest killer of the American Revolution.

In Virginia, as in all the colonies, every community supported a volunteer militia company, presumably a military force but more closely resembling a men's drinking and political club. Appointed Adjutant General of Virginia, Lawrence had been supposed to see that the militiamen possessed such martial skills as the ability to turn in formation without falling over each other. On Lawrence's death, George sought the office. He went after it in the Fairfax manner: not by becoming proficient in military matters, but by paying semi-social calls on influential members of the government. Thus following the mores of an aristocratic world, he secured, at the age of twenty, the title of major and the responsibility of training militia in skills he did not himself possess.

Hardly anyone could have sounded more insignificant if mentioned in the chancelleries of Europe. Yet in his obscure forests Washington was soon to fire the first shots in what became a world war.


A Clumsy Entrance on the World Stage


England and France were engaged in a cold war, each trying to contain the other. The Ohio Valley was among the globally scattered areas claimed by both rivals. France impinged from Canada; the British from across the Allegheny Mountains. Indians inhabited the valley. Although the few white men who traversed the paths and watercourses were mostly French, English land speculators had visions. The highest resident crown official in Virginia, Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie, joined with influential men (including the Fairfaxes) in his colony and in London to secure for their "Ohio Company" a grant of half a million acres.

What was Dinwiddie's horror to hear rumors that the French, who controlled the Great Lakes, were fortifying a route from Lake Erie to the Ohio River system so that their troops could float into the areas to the west of Virginia that the Ohio Company wanted. The Lieutenant Governor complained to his sovereign. George II ordered the building of a fort and also that an envoy be sent through the wilderness to search out the French position. If the French were really on land the British claimed, the envoy was to warn the intruders away. If the miscreants would not withdraw, Dinwiddie should use force.

To find a possible envoy presented Dinwiddie with serious problems. Whoever was chosen would have to travel first north against the rivers and then south with them, for some five hundred miles through an unbroken, Indian-haunted forest. The way back would go quickly if the rivers remained open, but winter was so close that the waters might harden into ice. The paths would then become almost impassable with snow. And no Virginian whose social position was commensurate with acting as a royal emissary possessed wilderness experience.

Yet the Fairfax connection boasted a physical giant who, even if he had never crossed the Alleghenies, had surveyed in the semi-wild Shenandoah Valley. Furthermore, although only twenty-one, George Washington carried the manifest air of one born to command. He was assigned two interpreters: a Dutchman, Jacob van Braam, whose knowledge of French was testified to by the badness of his English; and a fur trader, Christopher Gist, who was to prove less conversant with Indian tongues than he should have been. Add four backwoodsmen of low degree who acted as "servitors," some riding horses, and a flock of pack horses, and you had the expedition which in October, 1753, already fighting through heavy snow, descended from the mountains into the wild Ohio Valley. The French wilderness masters, so numerous and so familiar with Indian trails and embassies, would have regarded this tiny, amateur force as comic. Yet the tenderfoot who led it was no ordinary man.


Excerpted from Washington by James Thomas Flexner. Copyright © 1974 James Thomas Flexner. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. A Powerful Apprenticeship (1732–1753),
2. A Clumsy Entrance on the World Stage (1753–1754),
3. Love and Massacre (1754–1755),
4. Desperation and Disillusionment (1755–1759),
5. George Washington's First War (1753–1759),
6. A Virginia Businessman (1759–1775),
7. Washington in His Landscapes (1759–1775),
8. A New Call to Arms (1765–1775),
9. A Virginian in Yankee-Land (1775),
10. An Early Triumph (1775–1776),
11. The Continental Army on Trial (1776),
12. Depths (1776–1777),
13. Heights (1777),
14. The Loss of Philadelphia (1777),
15. The Conway Cabal (1777–1778),
16. The Road Turns Upward (1778),
17. Hope Abroad and Bankruptcy at Home (1778–1779),
18. Enter a French Army (1779–1780),
19. Treason (1775–1780),
20. Virginia Endangered (1780–1781),
21. Yorktown (1781),
22. A Gulf of Civil Horror (1781–1783),
23. Goodbye to War (1775–1783),
24. Pleasures at Home (1783–1787),
25. Canals and Conventions (1783–1787),
26. The Constitution of the United States (1787–1788),
27. Hysteria and Responsibility (1788),
28. A Second Constitutional Convention (1789),
29. The Social Man (1789),
30. Infighting Foreshadowed (1790),
31. The Great Schism Opens (1790–1792),
32. Europeans and Indians (1783–1791),
33. Desire to Escape (1791–1792),
34. No Exit (1790–1793),
35. Bad Omens (1792–1793),
36. Earthquake Faults (1793 and thereafter),
37. A French Bombshell (1793),
38. Trouble All Around (1793),
39. A Tragic Departure (1793),
40. Opposite Hands Across the Ocean (1794),
41. The Whiskey Rebellion (1790–1794),
42. The Democratic Societies (1794),
43. A Disastrous Document (1795),
44. Tragedy with a Friend (1795),
45. Downhill (1795–1796),
46. Washington's Farewell Address (1796),
47. The End of the Presidency (1796–1797),
48. Home Again (1797–1799),
49. Mental Confusion (1797–1798),
50. Politics at Sunset (1798–1799),
51. Washington and Slavery (1732–1799),
52. Death of a Hero (1799),
About the Author,

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Washington: The Indispensable Man 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
regina77004 More than 1 year ago
This is a good broad view of the life of the MAN George Washington rather than the mythological figure with which most people are familiar. Beginning with life in England the reader has an opportunity to see what changes take place in his life as he develops the philosophy from which Washington will govern
carterchristian1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An important Washington biography based on the author's 4 volume set. Essential for the study of Washington. Good photographs and maps for the size of the book.
Sinsal More than 1 year ago
The author wrote four volumes of the life of our first president in the late 1960;s and condensed them into these 423 pages, but the text is “almost all together new,” he advises in the “Preface.” Now deceased, the author received the highest awards for his work and so I imagine that his knowledge and appreciation for George Washington remains unequaled to this day. I gained a special appreciation for the father of our country thanks to the author’s emphasis on the personal aspects of George Washington’s life. For example, I was touched to learn that almost everyone he met, from the time he was a young man to his last years, trusted him almost immediately for his honesty and good will, and fully expected him to execute a plan, whatever it might have been. His famous crossing of the Delaware, as commander of the bedraggled American forces, to surprise the British at Trenton, is probably the best-known example of how his men loyally followed him even when he had been losing numerous battles. He was not a trained warrior, but he was not afraid to take the lead and do his best for his upstart nation. He stressed heavily on this account. Washington owned slaves who worked on his plantation, Mount Vernon. Contradictorily, however, the author portrays him as a man so concerned about the welfare of others that he refused to sell his slaves to avoid separating family members, something that made him stand out in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Consequently, Mount Vernon gradually loaded up with a surplus of slaves that simply added to Washington’s mounting indebtedness. This situation came to an end after his death only when his wife liberated them all, at a high cost, to be sure. Flexner’s knowledge of George Washington is outstanding, of course, in part because of his secure familiarity with Washington’s writings, letters, mostly. I found the author’s writing elliptically old-fashioned throughout, but it was worth turning every page. His bibliography must be the best up to 1974, the date of publication.
Katie_H on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was required reading for a history course that I was enrolled in a few years back, but I ended up dropping the course and never sold the texts back. It is an interesting and relatively short biography on George Washington; at 400 pages, it is MUCH shorter than Flexner's FOUR VOLUME long version. The writing was very dry at points, and I really had to stay focused or I'd find myself "reading" pages without really reading them. Still, it is a thorough account of a fascinating man and a very important era in our country's history. I especially enjoyed the sections that highlighted Washington's childhood and early adult life as well as his post-Presidency years. In addition to that, the chapter describing his views on slavery was very enlightening. My only issue with this book is that Flexner seemed to have significant distaste for John Adams, which was evident whenever he was mentioned in the text.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago