George Washington: The Forge of Experience (1732-1775)
by James Thomas Flexner
Read: Feb. 7 – March 7, 2018
Source: Purchased on powells.com
Blurb: In this deeply significant work, James Thomas Flexner has given life to the stony image of George Washington which stares at us so impersonally from Mount Rushmore, the dollar bill and the schoolroom wall.
With a clear, swiftly readable style, Flexner shows the wholly human way in which the character of one of the greatest men in history was shaped and how it, in turn, shaped his achievements. Able and energetic, impulsive and vulnerable, Washington from the first had major virtues – but he was also fallible.
Put into a position of leadership in the French-Indian conflict at the age of twenty-two – a position for which he was not yet ready – the young Lieutenant Colonel initiated actions which showed more bravery than good judgment. His hasty attack in the forest, on what the French insisted was a party escorting an ambassador, proved to be the first shot fired in the global Seven Years’ War. Yet each mistake – and success – of these early years was part of the vast experience which ultimately molded Washington into what Flexner calls “one of the noblest and greatest men who ever lived,” a man prepared to become, during the American Revolution, “more than a military leader: he was the eagle, the standard, the flag, the living symbol of the cause.”
Flexure covers forty-three years of Washington’s life in this volume, the first in a series of four planned to carry Washington through the Revolutionary War and on to the end of his life.
Vivid on the one hand and factually solid on the other, Flexner’s narrative absorbingly shows us the future hero as a callow youth, writing bad verse and in love with love. We see the era and the society which formed Washington and the individuals who mattered to him: his mother, who became an obdurate squatter on the farm he inherited; his beloved and ailing older brother, Lawrence, who married into the distinguished Fairfax family; George William Fairfax, who, in turn, married Sally Cary; and Sally, who stirred in Washington such forbidden ardor that twenty-five years later he could write her that none of the great events of his career, “nor all of them together, have been able to eradicate from my mine those happy moments, the happiest of my life, which I have enjoyed in your company.”
But it was Martha Custis, the handsome, domestic, timid and loyal widow he married, who brought the future President that happiness of a serener order which made “domestic enjoyments” at Mount Vernon and effective counterpoise, throughout his career, to ambition in the world of fame.
Impeccably researched, this work quotes directly from Washington’s letters, diaries and documents in presenting the most engrossing biography yet of the Father of Our Country.
Review: This is my second George Washington book on my Presidential Reading journey. I have the other three installments by Mr. Flexner and I intend to eventually put together an all-encompassing review of the four volumes together. So for now I will just write up a few of my thoughts on this particular installment.
My chief complaint regarding Ellis’ His Excellency was that I wanted more of George Washington – who he was and where he came from. This installment definitely fulfilled that desire. I was glad to really get a good idea of who Washington was from his earlier years. I found it interesting to read about his mother – who was not exactly what you would call a supportive/loving mother. His marriage to Martha was also discussed more in depth, and I greatly appreciated learning more about the relationship they shared.
I enjoyed learning new things about Washington’s earlier years. But I also struggled to get through the book at times. Having been written in the 1960s, I didn’t find it as readable as more contemporary books are. Mr. Flexner made great use of direct quotes from Washington’s personal letters/diaries, which was interesting to a certain extent, but I felt that it bogged down at times.
A great portion of this book surrounded the French and Indian War years. As usual, I do not really like reading about wars. (Which makes me very nervous to read the next installment, which covers the Revolutionary War years). I don’t really care to know about battle strategy and things like that. So I definitely stalled out quite a bit in reading this book when it hit that point.
Overall, it’s an okay book. I’m going to reserve my final judgment until I have finished the entire series because I feel like it’s going to come out much better when taken in its entirety rather than just each installment individually.