Any good biography is not only a portrait of the subject, it is a doorway that opens into a place and a time, and Flexner’s book is rich with this kind of detail. “The “Wild West” was then on the Atlantic seacoast,” he writes of Virginia in 1675, the year the first Washington came to America.
There, that gives you a little perspective on the time.
How about this: “In 1768, Washington went to church on fifteen days, mostly when away from home, and hunted foxes on forty-nine…He attended three balls, two plays, and one horse race…He visited a lioness and a tiger, and gave nine shillings to a showman who brought up an elk up the long driveway to Mount Vernon.” I feel like I know the father of our country a little better now, don’t you?
Flexner has an able pen, and at times an enjoyably acid one, too, as in this portrait of General Charles Lee: “He was tall and emaciated, dirty of clothes and body, voluble, foulmouthed, seemingly brilliant, best characterized by his Indian name, “Boiling Water.” He felt that he was making perhaps too great a sacrifice in agreeing to be commanded by the amateur Washington.”
“As always,” Flexner writes, after Yorktown, “when the British were in trouble, patriots came flocking [to Washington’s army:]…”
Of French Minister Edmond Charles Genet, he writes “Jefferson now tried to tone the Frenchman down, but it was like arguing with a tornado.”
Jefferson, Munro, Adams, Franklin, all the usual suspects are of course present in this narrative. But it is Flexner’s contention that only Washington could have led the Continental Army to victory, and only Washington who could have led the nation during those first shaky years of the first government ever of laws and not of men. He’ll make a believer out of you.