Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Bacon Presidential Library Vol. 3: George Washington and the New Nation

 George Washington & the New Nation (1783-1793)

     -James Thomas Flexner

Little Brown & Company

466 Pages

It seems like I cruised through the third volume of James Flexner’s biography on George Washington. It could have been that by this point, Flexner was settling into a less plodding narrative, or that I was getting more used to the cadence of his writing. At any rate, I went through these nearly 500 pages with relative ease and quickness, even with the occasional side trip to the thesaurus. There’s one volume left to this biography and I hope it reads as well as the third.

George Washington & the New Nation focuses on Washington’s life between the end of the American Revolution and end of his first term as President. While the fledgling United States foundered forward after the war under the Articles of Confederation, Washington returned home to his beloved Mount Vernon. Although he missed Virginia during his time at the head of the Continental Army and he relished the moments he had while walking and riding his lands, he seemed just as wayward and disjointed as the pre-Constitution country. Flexner, for these moments, wove together the United States and the Father of Our Country into a kind of symbiosis. They needed each other more than either realized.

Washington became the president of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 when it was clear that the Articles of Confederation would not provide for a sufficient central government. When the need for a President arose from those proceedings, his peers chose him once again to lead. Arguably, from 1775 until 1783, and again from 1787 until 1797, George Washington was the leader of the United States of America. 

Much of this book deals with Washington’s first term and his relationships with his closest advisors. Flexner continues his personal animosity towards John Adams, who barely gets a mention, but Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton get quite a bit of ink dedicated to them. Their dueling personalities affected Washington’s decisions as he led the country. He faced world events that could have had catastrophic implications for the new nation, and had to balance the requests of his strongest advisors with the needs of national prosperity. 

Every move Washington made as President set a precedent. It was something he was acutely aware of. He understood that his actions would dictate how future leaders would react in similar situations. While the new government was constructed of three equal branches - executive, legislative, judicial - all three still needed definition. Washington, by virtue of being the sole executive, did a great deal to set the powers of office, both expanding and curbing them where needed. The legislative branch struggled with the same, but the judicial remained mired in the shadows. At least for the time being. 

Flexner offers an exquisite analysis of the events that the United States faced in its formative years and Washington’s reaction to them. There is much more research done for Jefferson and Hamilton and their debates than in the other two books from this biography. Their collective impacts on Washington helped to define at least his first term as President. We get to see more of the people who surrounded him, who he considered confidants. They are part of the narrative that gives us a clearer view of Washington, the man. This book, more than the others, separates the Man from the Legend. It is a far more intimate look at George Washington. His strengths and flaws are most on display in this volume. 

As we move into Washington’s twilight years, Flexner seems to be content to show Washington in his times as well as Washington looking back at his own life more and more. A more contemplative George Washington appears in this volume compared to his young, impetuous years as a leader in the Virginia militia. I look forward to the final volume of this biography with Washington considering his legacy.

Craig Bacon has added more books to the project. This could take longer than the initial four years he set aside.

Next Up: George Washington:Anguish and Farewell (1793-1799) by James Flexner