Monday, February 1, 2021

The Bacon Presidential Library Vol 4: George Washington Anguish & Farewell

 George Washington: Anguish & Farewell (1793-1799)

     -James Thomas Flexner

Little Brown & Company

554 Pages

My first biography of George Washington finally drew to a close after a month-long reading of James Flexner’s four-volume series. After reading nearly 1,900 pages on the life of Washington, I feel like I might have an inkling of what to expect in the next books I have chosen to read about our first president. Already, many of the myths and legends often taught to us in our youngest years have been easily dispelled. There was so much more to the man than the literally legendary cutting of the cherry tree and the wooden teeth. This series was one of the most difficult of the list, and I’m glad I started here. If I can make it through Flexner’s biography, I can get through the rest.

George Washington: Anguish & Farewell (1793-1799) covers Washington’s life from the start of his second term as president until his sudden death in 1799. Volume three, which showcased the build-up to the presidency and his first term, seemed to focus on the people who surrounded Washington. In this volume, the reader gets more analysis of the man himself, including a nice wrap up that attempts to define his place in history without all the polishing and veneration. There is even a chapter on his relationship with the idea of slavery, which we will get to later in this review.

Flexner continues to explore Washington’s life in all its glory, and all its ugliness. The blemishes on a long and distinguished career sometimes are lost, but Flexner culls them from the record and explores the impact each had on Washington. Time and time again, Washington put the needs of the fledgling country over his own. He understood the precedent that had been created and how he needed to walk a careful line between the factions that were pulling at him and at the very fabric of the United States.

Moreso in this volume, George Washington seems more melancholy and reflective. As he aged and matured, his outlook on life was modified. He was still careful to weigh all his options, often driving his critics to madness while waiting for him to finally come to a decision. His longing for home and wife at Mount Vernon was equaled only by his sense of duty. Occasionally, even in his twilight years, the impetuous young man would rear his ugly head and threaten to resign posts awarded to him by President Adams. Despite his slowly eroding power after the presidency, he still was formidable enough for a stubborn John Adams to relent at least partially.

Although Washington eschewed political parties, during his time, he saw the government pulled into two directions by the Federalist and Democratic-Republican factions. He carefully attempted to appease both sides with decisions that either party could find some positivity in. However, as the two sides grew more vocally separate, it was more and more difficult to achieve. The ensuing turmoil saw Washington’s character being impugned by the respective newspapers of the parties. The vitriol spewed towards Washington kind of destroys the image of “our beloved and unanimous president.”

At the end of the book, Flexner takes the time to draw his conclusions about Washington on that particular volume’s focus. With this final edition, the author not only analyzes his final years, but also of George Washington across his entire life. A whole chapter at the end is dedicated to Washington’s view on slavery and his actual ownership of other human beings. Considering the times we are currently living in, this part of Washington’s life cannot be overlooked.

I feel it's important to look at the evolution of Washington's view on slavery. It definitely changed as he matured. In his early years, he was not averse to keeping slaves in order to run his expansive farm holdings. He felt that he would not be able to afford farming without them. He was apt, as he grew older, to keep families together, even when he needed money to keep the farms running. 

Finally, he began to believe that owning slaves was morally wrong. He wished to free all his slaves, and instituted a plan where if he sold certain farms to others, the buyer would be committed to hiring the former slaves who had worked that particular farm, and pay them a comparable wage. This plan ultimately failed, but it shows an evolution in his thinking. Furthermore, Washington was fully prepared to free all his slaves and did so in his will at the time of his death in 1799. He was the only Founding Father to do so, and he wrote and spoke often of his desire to end slavery often over the course of his final years. 

In today’s society, there seems to be only a black and white way of looking at things. George Washington owned slaves. Therefore he’s evil. Yes, he owned slaves. Yes, owning slaves is evil. But the true measure of a man is how his thinking changes over time. Did his views on slavery change? Yes. Did he try to make amends for those transgressions at his death? Yes. None of this changes the fact that, yes, he owned slaves, and it does not excuse it. But it does show that his opinions were changing and evolving. Perhaps had he lived a little longer (he was only 67), he could have had more influence regarding these changing views on the country? He was, despite the rhetoric in his second term, still a very respected man. His voice carried weight.

Throughout James Flexner’s writing, George Washington appeared as much more than the myth. His failures defined him just as much as the victories. In some cases, he grew stronger from those mistakes. In others, it was a failing that would haunt him for his entire life. Flexner’s research paints the picture of a man that many of us can relate to. He learned. He loved. He fought. He cried. He was a human being just like the rest of us. This clearer look at our first president made me take a closer look at the birth of our nation and the people who helped define it. Instead of near-deities, we see people who struggled just as we do. That makes the story of our early years that much more special. They were trying to build “a more perfect union.” They knew that they weren’t perfect, and neither are we. We can only strive to inch closer to that goal.

Craig Bacon is glad the first biography is finally done. Maybe the list can start getting shorter now.

Next Up: Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow