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.