This week Stan looks back at one of the most popular TV shows ever, a Mad magazine cartoonist who left his mark on the holidays, a critical day in the American Civil War, a milestone birthday of a legendary football coach, one of the most momentous days in Olympic history, Travis McGee novels, and much more.
John Ferling, Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781 (Bloomsbury, 2021, 701 pp., $40)
John Ferling, professor emeritus of history at the University of West Georgia, is one of the most prolific historians writing today—and one of the best. This is John’s 15th book on the colonial and Revolutionary period, and his 10th in the last 21 years. This volume, covering the last three years of the American Revolutionary War, weighs in at 561 pages of text and nearly 150 pages of notes and bibliography.
By my count, this is John’s third book that focuses on the military phase of the Revolution, following Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (Oxford, 2007), and Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It (Bloomsbury, 2015). Of course his biographies of George Washington and John Adams cover the war years as well, as does his political history of the war, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic (Oxford, 2003), and his prosopography, Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution (Oxford, 2000). Yet he never repeats himself, always offering fresh insights and interpretations.
How does he manage to do this? Here’s what I wrote in a review of his dual biography, Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation (Bloomsbury, 2013): “How, one might ask, does Ferling keep plowing the same ground and still have something new to say? Part of it is simply attributable to his maturity as a scholar. Unlike others who leap from one time period to another with each book, Ferling has spent his entire professional life laboring in the vineyard of the Founding era. Ferling isn’t just dabbling in this period; he knows it as well as anyone can who is now two centuries removed from the time about which he’s writing. He is well versed in what the Founders wrote, what they read, what they believed, and what they hoped to achieve. But he’s not awe-struck by them. Simultaneously, his reflections on people and events have deepened with the years, as he himself has aged. As should happen as we grow older, his own insights about human nature reflect his growth as a human being; he’s more empathetic, more forgiving of human foibles and less harsh on their failures, though he isn’t afraid to point them out and to hold men and women accountable for not only what they achieve, but what they fail to achieve. He knows what it’s like to live life, make mistakes, and have regrets. It’s the primary reason why people in their 20s shouldn’t write biographies.”
Rick Atkinson, the author of The British Are Coming: The War for America, 1775-1777 (Henry Holt, 2019), the first volume of his Revolutionary Trilogy, recently told me that he believes some subjects are bottomless. No matter how much is written about some historical periods and people, historians hundreds of years from now will still be producing books on Abraham Lincoln, the Second World War, and the American Revolution.
John Ferling’s masterful prose, in this and all his books, bears this out. As prolific as John is, I have no doubt that other volumes will follow, all exquisitely written, exhaustively researched, and deeply analytical.
Americans are endlessly fascinated by those who fought and won the Revolution, and that first greatest generation has no finer historian than the indefatigable Dr. John Ferling.
Stan talks about This Week in History (including King George III, AIDS, RFK, Mount Everest, & Charles Dickens), remembers a record-breaking baseball player, highlights new additions to the Off the Deaton Path bookshelf, and spotlights an incredible and historic collection of golden-age comic books about to hit the auction block–and the influence of comics in his own life.
Stan talks about This Week in History (the Stamp Act, James Jackson, Spike Lee, the first Black graduate of West Point, the Masters, Tomochichi, & Houdini), says goodbye to a pathbreaking historian and actor, spotlights new additions to the Off the Deaton Path bookshelf, and welcomes the opening of Major League Baseball.
I’m currently reading the fourth and final volume of James Thomas Flexner’s monumental biography of George Washington, Anguish and Farewell (1793-1799). As the title implies, it covers Washington’s second term as president, from 1793 to 1797, and the last two years of his life following his retirement from office till his death in December 1799.
Flexner’s life of Washington is often hailed as the best cradle-to-grave biography ever written about the man known during the Revolution as “His Excellency.” His goal was to pull Washington down off the pedestal and humanize him, knocking away the accumulated myths and legends to reveal the real man who was vain, short-tempered, flirtatious with women not named Martha Washington, politically ambitious and calculated, obsessed with what today we would call his “brand,” and of course a slaveowner who demonstrated no qualms over the institution till very late in his life.
Many writers who followed Flexner have had similar goals in regards to humanizing Washington, and it can be hard now to see how groundbreaking his achievement was when the four volumes, published by Little, Brown, & Co., appeared between 1965 and 1972. For what it’s worth, the United States of 1965-1972, riven by social unrest, dissent over Civil Rights and the Vietnam War, and the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, must have found it reassuring, as we do now, to read about Washington’s leadership through another tumultuous era.
As long-suffering readers of this blog know, I love multi-volume sets, and Flexner’s is one of many on my shelves. Rather than plow straight through them, however, I prefer to eat the elephant one bite at a time. For this set, I read the first volume, The Forge of Experience (1732-1775) in 2015, followed by a volume every two years: George Washington in the American Revolution (1775-1783) in 2017, and George Washington and the New Nation (1783-1793) in 2019.
Flexner’s work is not without its flaws—he continually confuses Washington’s age in this last volume, for instance, which for a reader less familiar with GW could be very confusing—but the work has been justly hailed as monumental. I confess that when I finished the first volume, I wasn’t that impressed, either with his style or his conclusions. I had just finished Edward J. Larson’s The Return of George Washington, 1783-1789 (William Morrow, 2014) and found it far superior, though written about a different era of Washington’s life.
But Flexner comes into his own, as does Washington, in the second volume, which covers the years of the American Revolution, and he carries his subject majestically to the end of the fourth and final book. And while comparisons are invidious, it’s worth noting that Flexner published all four volumes within 7 years of each other, covering Washington’s 67 years. Robert Caro is still working on the fifth (and supposedly final) volume of his life of Lyndon Johnson, who lived 4 years fewer than Washington; the first volume was published in 1982 and 39 years later Caro still isn’t finished. One never gets the sense, however, that Flexner’s is a rush job, as he tells his story gracefully across 2,000 accumulated pages.
For his efforts, Flexner was recognized with a special Pulitzer Prize in 1973, and the last volume won the National Book Award for Biography. He published a one-volume life entitled Washington: The Indispensable Man in 1974, but it’s not simply an abridgement of the larger work: Flexner re-wrote much of his material and it stands alone as a critically-acclaimed work that repays reading alongside other recommended one-volume treatments of the Great Man: John Ferling’s The First of Men: A Life of George Washington (University of Tennessee Press, 1988); Joseph J. Ellis’s His Excellency, George Washington (Knopf, 2004), and Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life (Penguin, 2010, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for biography).
As those last titles suggest, Flexner’s is hardly the last word on George Washington. A host of other titles published since Flexner’s last volume dig deeper into specific subjects and areas of Washington’s life, and there are always more to come. As Rick Atkinson recently noted, some subjects are bottomless, and Washington’s life is surely one of them.
A glance at my own shelves and the titles I’d recommend: John Ferling, The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of An American Icon (Bloomsbury, 2009, on Washington the politician); Robert Middlekauff, Washington’s Revolution: The Making of America’s First Leader (Knopf, 2015); Joel Achenbach, The Grand Idea: George Washington’s Potomac and the Race to the West (Simon & Schuster, 2004); Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (FSG, 2003, perhaps the best book on Washington and slavery); Kevin J. Hayes, George Washington: A Life in Books (Oxford, 2017, Washington’s library and how books influenced him); David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, Washington’s Circle: The Creation of the President (Random House, 2015, Washington and his Cabinet); Peter R. Henriques, Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington (UVA Press, 2006, Washington’s religious beliefs); and a trio of books on Washington’s relationship with other historic figures: Stuart Leibiger, Founding Friendship: George Washington, James Madison, and the Creation of the American Republic (University of Virginia Press, 1999); Stephen F. Knott & Tony Williams, Washington & Hamilton: The Alliance That Forged America (Sourcebooks, 2015); and Edward J. Larson, Franklin & Washington: The Founding Partnership (William Morrow, 2020).
This list barely scratches the surface. For those who wish to delve into Washington’s own writings, those continue to be published by the University of Virginia Press in multiple editions, in letterpress books and digitally: the Colonial Series, the Revolutionary Series, the Confederation Series, the Presidential Series, and the Retirement Series, along with his Diaries. Digital editions of the content of all 73 volumes published thus far are available on three different platforms online.
As to Flexner, five total volumes on Washington would be work enough for a lifetime for most writers, but he was prolific, authoring 26 books before his death in 2003 at age 95. The New-York Historical Society holds his papers.
If you’re interested in George Washington, James Thomas Flexner’s volumes are still perhaps the best place to start. But if four volumes on Washington aren’t enough for you, there’s always Douglas Southall Freeman’s encyclopedic 7-volume biography of Washington, published between 1948 and 1957. Flexner relied on it heavily and calls it “as close to being a primary source as such a labor can be.”
As mentioned, I love multi-volume sets and Freeman sits right beside Flexner on the shelf. That’s an elephant for another day.