Monday, January 18, 2021

The Bacon Presidential Library Vol 2:George Washington in the American Revolution

 George Washington In the American Revolution(1775-1783)

     -- James Thomas Flexner

Little, Brown & Company

622 Pages

It took me about a week to read through the first volume of James Flexner’s George Washington biography, so when I picked up the second volume, I thought that it was going to take me even longer. George Washington in the American Revolution is almost double the length. While the first book covered the first 43 years of Washington’s life, this volume focused on his life during the American Revolution, 1775-1783. The action of the war made this a much quicker read for me, finishing in just over four days of reading.

As with the first volume of this series, sometimes the vocabulary used by Flexner has me resorting to a dictionary or thesaurus on occasion. This one is a little less verbose with the antiquated wording, but it is still evident. His overuse of “His Excellency” towards the end of the book was a bit overdone, but the hero worship of Washington is still held at arm’s length throughout the book. Flexner attempts to be a dispassionate observer of Washington’s life as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, and proves to be quite successful. His biggest failure in that regard deals not with Washington, but with his fellow Founding Father, John Adams. His extreme distaste of Adams is barely restrained, and it’s almost as if he takes glee in denigrating the man.

When the American Revolution and his promotion to the head of the non-existent army tears Washington away from his beloved Mount Vernon and his even more beloved Martha, he yearns for the day he can return. However, he feels duty-bound to protect the interests of his fellow colonial residents. Flexner describes Washington’s actions throughout the war, with some analysis of the events gleaned from notes of various commanders besides Washington. 

As we’ve seen from his days during the French & Indian War, George Washignton’s leadership often focused on perceived slights, both upon his person and upon the care needed by his army. During the Revolution, this was no different. Washington always wanted more for himself and his men. He was not ruffling some feathers, and quite often viewed himself above reproach.

Interestingly, it seems that once Washignton made it to the pinnacle of his military career there was a concerted effort to see him fail. Even so-called friends suddenly fixated on his shortcomings, especially his record of no major victories against the British. Thomas Conway and Washington’s friend, Horatio Gates, actively plotted against him to have him removed from command. His close friend, Charles Lee, after Lee’s release as a prisoner of war, seemed to try to undermine Washington’s authority. They felt he was timid in command, not a great general, and he was headstrong once he was criticized in any way. While Washington was guilty of much of that, the Continental Congress ultimately stuck with him.

I understand that this was a biography of George Washington, and not a history of the American Revolution, I felt that it could have been both. There are many instances that Flexner provides amazing analysis of the battles. However, in my opinion, there were several incidents that could have been better analyzed. First and foremost were the events during the winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge. Not much was mentioned at all. There is little mention of the lack of privations of Washington’s army and how that affected the General. 

Another part that was lacking was Washigton’s reaction to Lee’s actions at Monmouth as well as Lee’s actions themselves. The details were mostly glossed over, and instead we find ourselves reading a short montage of Lee’s court martial. It seems like these moments were moments that would have had a great impact on Washington’s life, but they are barely given much notice. While Flexner wanted to show Washington’s life, he seems hesitant in his writing to put much value in actions that really put the early United States in an unfavorable light. 

Despite those complaints, I found James Flexner’s George Washington in the American Revolution to be not only very informative, but also very entertaining. The birth of our nation was a series of fits and starts, not fully grown and beautiful like Aphrodite emerging from the sea. For the most part, Flexner captures these hiccups of a new nation. And he captures the essence of a man torn between his love of home, his love for country (as shaky as it was), and his love of freedom.

I have discovered as I’m reading these books that the related reading list will only grow. I’m only two books into this project and I already have a handful of books to supplement just Washington’s biography. Currently, I have one on Valley Forge, and Baron von Steuben, who was the drillmaster at that winter camp. Additionally, I have a book on the Conway Cabal on its way to read. This project seems to grow at every page.

In Flexner’s second volume, Washington still does not come across as the deified Founding Father that we’ve had pounded home since elementary school. He was a real man with real struggles. Flexner explores those struggles and paints a picture of the person more as he really was than as an ideal.

Craig Bacon continues his adventure with even more George Washington. Coming soon.

Next Up: George Washington and the New Nation (1783-1793) by James Flexner