Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner


The fourth and closing biography I opted for on George Washington is Washington: The Indispensable Man.  I did not have a specific methodology of determining a logical plan to read the books, but discovered the perfect book to complete my journey on Washington.  I could not have been happier with the book and consider it the correct biography to close out a study on the first president.

Washington: The Indispensable Man was written by James Thomas Flexner and published by Little, Brown and Company in 1974.  Flexner was born in New York City and lived from 1908 until his death in 2003.  His Father, Simon Flexner, discovered a cure for spinal meningitis; his mother Helen was an English professor.  Flexner graduated cum laude from Harvard University in 1929 and in 1932 become a full-time writer.

James Flexner, best known for his four-volume biography on George Washington, earned a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize.  The Indispensable Man is a one volume abridgement of his earlier biography, but is uniquely different than his earlier work.  Flexner states that most of the writing in the abridgement is new, making this book more than a shortened version of his masterful earlier volumes.

Flexner concentrated his research primarily on original documents to portray Washington from the perspective of the 18th Century, not the 20th.  The author desired to counter modern criticisms, painting Washington in contrast to his time.  The length of the book is 423 pages spread amongst 52 chapters- in my opinion a solid balance.  Flexner weaves a smooth, flowing story, not overburdened with academic jargon, his knack for story telling compares favorably to Joseph Ellis’ His Excellency (review here).

Washington: The Indispensable Man opens with a brief review of Washington’s ancestors in Virginia.  Like Washington: A Life (review here), Flexner provides enough detail of George’s childhood for the reader to establish a base of knowledge bringing the rest of the book into perspective.  Flexner describes the frustration of Washington, the Colonial leader, coveting an unattainable royal commission.  The book shows the descent of Washington from a British subject, fighting the French and Indian War into the dissatisfied American who desired an independent nation.

Flexner spends roughly 25% of his manuscript on General Washington leading the Continental Army against the British.  One aspect I found very helpful during these chapters was the sketched maps depicting the movements of the opposing armies during battle.  The pictures made the words come alive in a context different than Rhodehamel’s, The Wonder of the Age (review here).  No different than the other biographers I have read, there is no attempt to make Washington into a tactical genius.  Flexner acutely illustrates Washington’s force of will that was his major contribution to the war for independence.  The balanced portrait in the book ensures that the author maintains his credibility.

The portion of The Indispensable Man that stands out is Flexner’s authorship of the presidential years.  He takes on Washington’s presidency event by event making it easy to do an evaluation of his performance.  Flexner is masterful in contriving this section of the book-including a chapter, The Great Schism Opens, that sets the stage for Washington’s difficulties as president.

The achievements of Washington as the first chief executive are simple to discern due to how the biography is contrived.  The reader easily identifies the issue, reads how Washington addressed it and decides if the course of action was the right one.  Washington was an inclusive leader that wanted to hear all opinions prior to deciding.  Flexner’s account of Washington the President is superior to the other biographies I have read.

I found Flexner’s one volume to be a fascinating book.  Once I complete my journey through all of the presidents- I will return to Flexner and read his four-volume epic on Washington as President.  The illustrations, flawless writing, and overall flow of the book make this the second best novel I have read on George Washington.  The only part that keeps Washington: The Indispensable Man slightly behind Washington: A Life is the more detail Chernow provides albeit over twice the number of pages.  I recommend Washington: The Indispensable Man slightly ahead of His Excellency: George Washington for the reader who wants a solid, compact book on this most important founding father.

Overall: 4.5 stars

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