"Ars bene honesteque vivendi"


  • Introduction:

Why did Beethoven not turn to George Washington as an example of the revolutionary hero when he turned away from Napoleon? Indeed, why also did neither Verdi nor Wagner refer to him in their republican thoughts? Since these composers feature significantly in Cantokentigerni, it might be appropriate to devote some time to trying to appreciate and understand this extraordinary historical person, George Washington. No other leader of a revolutionary army has resigned his commission and walked away from power, other than Cincinnatus, a Roman general of the fourth century BC. Equally significantly, no other President of a revolutionary republic has ever stepped down from power while still in office. In a sense , Washington incorporates everything that Beethoven had sought for in Napoleon, yet failed to find.

  • Preamble:

I have relied largely on James Thomas Flexner 4 volume biography of Washington, notes on which are provided below.

Clearly, Washington faced huge challenges in his life. There is still no obvious explanation for the unusual development of this extraordinary person. His father had little influence on him in his youthful years; his older brother died before he could influence him more directly; and his closest friend had wealth and social standing way beyond that of Washington. His decision to become a surveyor was probably inspired by the need for cash (farmers had little cash, and he had a very cash-demanding mother, with younger children to support). And it may be his exposure to the frontier which provided the most expansive experiences of his youth. It is still difficult for Americans to appreciate the sheer vastness of their continent, and just how wide open it must have seemed to the young Virginian in his westward excursions. And his later attendance at the Continental Congress must have reinforced his sense of the equally vast eastern seaboard (he had travelled with his brother on a ship bound to the Caribbean as a youth, and must have been struck, as all landlocked people are, by the vastness of the sea) not to mention the rich diversity of colonial Americans from all thirteen colonies. He certainly must have shared some of this wonder and sense of infinite possibility with his fellow colonists.

His early military experiences taught him much about the British military system, as well as the efficacy of the Indian mode of fighting against the British. The refusal of the British to grant him a commission must have been crushing to someone of his sensibilities, but it allowed him to return to farming, which in turn allowed him entry into the political life of Virginia at just the right time when his personal fortunes had increased considerably through his marriage into Martha’s wealth and social standing.

He did not attend formal schooling and received a limited education. He learned much from the Fairfax family, especially a basic Stoic approach to life, apparently quite common in the colonies. He was very taken by Addison’s play “Cato”. The principles he lived by were largely Stoic, but were combined with a vital energy which lay within him and led him to believe that almost anything could be possible, if effort, ability and “providence” were on his side. He had an indomitable belief in himself and in others, and clearly believed that the right motives would find just expression in time through consistent effort.

His exposure to the erotic and youthful passion was not as successful as he would have wished. Sally Fairfax enthralled him, and he spent his happiest moments with her. While he subsequently courted and married Martha, this relationship, though tender, was clearly not of the same intensity. And while their lives together became deeply intertwined, it is probable that he never quite managed to move affectively beyond the memory of Sally. All of this may have been involved in his apparent fidelity to Martha while enjoying female friendships wherever he could. His integrity appears to have been all-encompassing in this regard. Martha’s destruction of their mutual letters leaves us in the dark of much of the intimacy he must have shared with her.

His lifestyle was essentially aristocratic; he was a southern gentleman. In trying to create an office of President, he wanted to avoid the trappings of royalty, while retaining some sense of the dignity of the Office. This was no easy task at the best of times, and Washington may have erred slightly on the aristocratic side (the levees, the society women, etc). Yet he could not be accused of not working hard. During the War he had not taken a day of furlough in eight years, and as President he continued to rise early, respond to letters, meet with his cabinet, meet with guests, etc. He even travelled to each state during his first term. His natural shyness and diffidence, combined with his height and habit of command, almost certainly intimidated most people, and gave him an air of superiority or arrogance. And yet, he managed to create extraordinary consensus on virtually every serious issue the country faced. Because he could always take a long term view, he was able to adapt, manoeuvre, retreat, advance on another tack, without losing his goal, and he could do this by being severe at times (e.g. the veto) or lenient (overlooking some of Jefferson’s faults, etc). He had extraordinary patience on the big issues, but was quickly irascible on many petty issues. He needed intimacy; above all Martha, but also close friends like Gouverneur Morris and Eliza Powel, and Lafayette. He trusted all of his close associates, and suffered deeply when betrayed (Benedict Arnold, Randolph). His poor handling of his anger with Adams’ interference, as President, with his choice of senior officers was definitely regretful and represents his apparently sole slip from an integrity of constitutional and republican behaviour. I accept Flexner’s view that Washington was really too old for the renewed pressure on him to somehow save the nation. That it went no further, and that his services were finally not required, to a large extent saved the day.

But am I any closer to understanding why this man turned down supreme leadership of his country when it was there for the taking? And this not once, but twice. There is a view that only Mandela has walked away from elected office in the same manner as Washington. He too could have been crowned President for life, but chose to retire. But Mandela had the precedent of Washington, and the examples of Gandhi and King to consider, whereas Washington had only Cincinnatus, and this example did not apply to the stepping away from the Presidency. So what is it about Washington that enabled him to see so clearly, and act accordingly? My sense is that somehow he believed that the men around him, and their successors, would come to his conclusions about America, about liberty for all in a peaceful society; that somehow a consensus of peace and harmony would evolve over time which would provide freedom to all and an end to slavery while establishing strong and respectful relationships with aboriginal people as the western expansion of the United States would continue. He knew that all of this would take time, that some people would always remain intransigent, choosing war over peace, slavery over freedom, racism over inclusion, but believed a consensus could be reached. He was no idle dreamer. He had watched his two closest companions, Hamilton and Jefferson, become deep enemies despite their commitment to a common end – the survival of the United States of America.

He appears to have assumed leadership roles quite naturally, and as though he expected others to follow his suggestions. His was a quiet authority springing from his deep self-assurance combined with an inherent “diffidence” (humility is a better word), all perceived by others within the context of his physically commanding presence. He learned quickly to listen to others, to consider different opinions, and to make up his mind slowly and methodically. Once he had decided on an issue, he acted, and never looked back. He learned from his mistakes, and had the courage to risk failure. He never assumed that he had the appropriate experience to lead as he did (Commander of the Army, later as President), but was willing to try to learn, if others insisted and gave him the authority and encouragement to do do. It did not seem to him unusual that his appointments to leadership roles were alway by unanimous vote; my sense is that he assumed that this would be the case. As he progressed, he owed his ascendancy to no one individual, or group of individuals to whom he could be indebted or beholden; he remained independent, his own man, centred in his own integrity. In this regard, he mirrors in many ways the characteristics of Thomas More, but is distinguished from him by his assumption of almost absolute authority within his own sense of the rightness of the Constitution, which invariably placed its own limitations on what he believed could be done in the new republic.Thomas More was never so fortunate, but had to find his way through the labyrinth of the tyranny of Henry VIII, who ultimately had to murder him in order to sustain his tyranny.

The fact that the Revolution in America did not have to confront the person of the King and decide his fate, because of the sheer distance separating the colonies from Britain, certainly was a major factor in the Constitution establishing a republic without having to dispose of the King (as did Cromwell and Robespierre). Thus the transition of sovereignty could be led by Washington and the Congress without too much disruption at the local level. Obviously, the Loyalists paid a price, but were in part compensated by the British, and many left the republic. Property rights were enshrined in the Constitution and landowners and wealthy merchants did not have their positions threatened. Indeed, Washington opposed any efforts by the “poor” to confiscate property in some “levelling” mode. If the Revolution were to succeed, he was convinced that the rule of law must abide, and on this, all of the leaders of colonies were in agreement. And Washington was quick to realize that slavery, as a form of property, could not be addressed as a moral issue until there had been time to debate it fully within the law of the new Constitution, which had been agreed to only by compromise and in shelving the debate on slavery at the Congressional level for twenty years. That Washington struggled with this issue is clear, but he could find no solution politically; he could find a solution only personally by freeing his own slaves in his will, something not done by Jefferson, Madison or Monroe, who were later to succeed him as President. It is quite likely that the Union of the United States could not have survived anti-slavery legislation in the early days of the constitutional debate. Given Washington’s notions of the eventual victory of right over might, of the “invisible hand of providence”, his acceptance of this compromise may be understood, and possibly even forgiven. It is doubtful if he saw any other immediate possibility, although, as he approached his death, he may have hoped that his example of freeing his slaves upon his death may have acted as a precedent for his successors. But it did not. Nor did the inequality of wealth change very much other than through the expansion of settlement to the West, where poor Americans (or newly landed European immigrants) could acquire land hitherto the preserve of the Indians. And this was what Washington tended to envision. Although he appears to have had a clearer sense of the rights of Indians than many of his successors, the westward expansion he envisaged could only be achieved at some cost to the native Indians.

So he remains an extraordinary person, the one person par excellence who, by the sheer power of his personalty and integrity of self, ensured that the American Revolution would succeed in its basic introduction of liberty, equality and democracy to a world which knew nothing of such a realty other than the ancient, short-lived example of Athens.

  • Sources:

George Washington, by James Thomas Flexner, Volume One,1732-1775.

I have summarized Flexner’s text, noting only essential points that have struck me. The main events of Washington’s life and times are readily available so I have not spent time trying to focus on them. There are many Youtube films, documentaries, speeches, lectures, debates, etc., on Washington, some of value, others of questionable value. My Preamble, above, is based largely on Flexner.

“When I undertook this biography of Washington… I tried to empty my mind of every preoccupation that existed about his character and career: I tried to start my study as if I had never heard the name of Washington… My labors have persuaded me that he became one of the noblest and greatest man who ever lived.” [5].

His love for Sally Fairfax – 39, 201, 204, 353, 356, 360. Nothing in his life has “been able to eradicate from my mind those happy moments, the happiest of my life, which I have enjoyed in your company.” (letter to Sally at the end of his life, 204). He buys Sally’s bedroom “bolster and pillows that had so often felt the impress of that dear face.” 324.

William Fairfax introduces Washington to the writings of the Romans, especially Seneca. 28, 241

Washington’s towering height 80

Giant who “did not know fear ” 93

“The ability to lead man” 109

1754: resigns from the army rather than be demoted. 113

His sense of “the miraculous care of Providence that protected me beyond all human

expectation.” 129

1755: Braddock’s Defeat. Washington gains acclaim – “the most conspicuous of these provincials.”134.

Washington becomes Colonel and C-in-C of Virginia Regiment. 138

No evidence of infidelity after Washington marries Martha, 157

“A man who sought self-mastery as passionately as Washington did could not enjoy anything that involved losing control.” 158

“He was extremely popular with the hard core of continuing officers who constituted the backbone of his armies.” 159

“Pride in the regiment rather than individual pride was what Washington sought to inculcate.” 160.

Patronage failed him and merit counted for nothing. 176

Fort Duquesne: abandoned by French: Washington was wrong entirely, and may only have understood what had really transpired years later. 209, 215, 220, 319.

1759: “stung with the unmerited failure”, Washington returns, marries, leaves army. 223

Martha creates a “happy home” which Washington had never known 228

Martha burns all of their letters, 230 [no explanation, so why?]

Washington’s Diaries as non-disclosures of his inner life 232

Martha’s personal fortune 233

1761: Washington inherits Mount Vernon. Thanks to Martha, he is now wealthy, and has position in Virginia society 234

1773: Sally Fairfax leaves for England forever 236

Washington’s Stoicism: 241; influence of Seneca, “he did own, at the age of seventeen, an outline of Seneca’s principle dialogues. This Stoic work presaged to a remarkable extent what Washington became. It may well have been recommended to him by William Fairfax.” 241/2; Cato (Addison play, “Cato, indeed, resembled Washington at his most elevated and austere, but the American General was a much warmer and gentler man.” 242); belief in Seneca’s “Providence” rather than god. 244.

Washington as Deist, 245.

Washington’s reserve/silence 251

Washington’s realism: “we must make… the best use of mankind as they are, as we cannot have them as we wish.” 257

Washington as steadfast: “I do not recollect that in the course of my life I ever forfeited my word, or broke a promise to anyone.” [1786] 259

Martha’s son John was “a rich idler, almost sinister in his bland, myopic selfishness.” 269

“The most revolutionary act of his life” – his refusal to be king, 270.

Washington regarded his slaves, at this time at Mount Vernon, as “less as people than property” 275

Washington switches out of tobacco – “self reliance” 284

His land deals at this time (1774/5) – “he acted as an oversharp businessman.” 302.

Washington as exception to the rule of Founding Fathers who “thought of little else than politics.” 313

Washington slow to come to a conclusion: “He was not an intellectual who could play with a conception for years: turn it round, give voice to it, brighten or dim it according to circumstances. For Washington, the acceptance of a conclusion was taking an almost irrevocable step.” 315/6

He is now more cautious in drawing conclusions than in 1755 [Braddock/Duquesne] 318.

1772: His portrait painted in uniform, 317. He is committed to war if it comes to this.

He opposes slave trade in Fairfax Resolutions, but this in itself does not mean abolition [Virginia being the largest State with significant numbers of slaves, could still create economic benefit via the continued flow of offspring which could eventually be sold for cash]. “We must assert our rights or submit to every imposition that can be heaped upon us, till custom and use shall make us tame and abject slaves as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway. 321-2.

Washington is elected to represent Virginia (7 delegates) and comes in 3rd after Randolph and Lee. 322.

First Continental Congress:

He does not seek C-in-C position, 328, but wears his uniform. 331, 334, 340.
Unanimously elected, 15 June, 1775, 339
No Declaration of Independence yet, still need another year
Essentially, there is only Washington: “ he was the eagle, the standard, the flag, the living symbol of the cause”. 339. No army yet, just his appointment.
He asks not to be paid but to have expenses reimbursed
He declares his “inadequacy”, does not call on god, etc 341-5. “But as it has been a kind of destiny that has thrown me upon this service, I shall hope that my undertaking it is designed to answer to some good purpose, 343. [Dasein – did Heidegger ever read this!]
“I can answer for but three things, a firm belief in the justice of our cause, close attention in the prosecution of it, and the strictest integrity. If these cannot supply the place of ability and experience, the cause will suffer, and more than probably my character along with it…I am now embarked on a tempestuous ocean from, whence, perhaps, no friendly harbor is to be found.” 345.
Appendix C: only after research in the primary sources and writing most of Volume 1 did Flexner consult his principal secondary source, Freeman’s 7 volume biography, 1948-57. 353-7, 360.

Volume 2: 1775-83.

Flexner repeats his initial thesis that “in the pursuit of the true Washington, to ignore legend and make a new start based on examination of original evidence” is necessary. 3.

“this is not a history of the period arranged for convenience around George Washington. It is an account of the adventures and emotions of an individual man: how he had a great trust thrust upon him; how he handled himself and what changes experience, grievous or gay, made in his knowledge and his skills and his character, and what effect all this had on the history of the United States and, indeed, the world.” 3.

“his path through the Revolution was studded with mistakes… indiscretions… personal hatreds… boredom, resentments, lies, exaggerated complaints, and a great deal of personal misery.” 4

“Washington also manifested dedication, idealism, efficiency, sober thought, bursts of genius, and love.” 4

“A political moderate who believed in complete freedom of intellect, he argued for tolerance as he led a revolution.” 4

“Throughout that era of social upheavals which the American Revolution began and which still continues today, national leader after national leader has descried, dividing before him, alternate roads, one toward more democracy, the other to the establishment of order through the exertion of personal power. From the road to absolutism, there arises the dust of marching crowds: newly crowned kings and emperors, perpetual presidents, Duces, Feuhrers, generalissimos, protectors, party secretaries, dictators of the proletariat: they advance to band music over the prostrate body of political freedom with their bodyguards, their legions, their storm troopers, their people’s militia. On the other road we find a solitary figure, in a rusty blue and buff uniform without a single medal to sparkle on his breast,’ hastening with unspeakable delight to the still and placid walks of domestic life’.” 4

He argues that once the war with England was over and the central government seemingly about to fall apart, leaders like Robert Morris and Alexander Hamilton invited him to assume leadership of the new nation. “Almost every other world leader when faced with such temptation has succumbed. Why did George Washington stay his hand?” 5.

He points out that “the various colonies had not only a long history of local rivalry, but divergent economics needs and, indeed, widely contrasting climates. South Carolina and New Hampshire were half again as far apart as England and Italy.” 11. “Under these circumstances, a majority vote of the Congress could not commit the minority. Decisions would only stick if all of the colonies could be brought to unanimous agreement. This meant that Congress could not lead events. At best, it could only influence reactions to what had already taken place.” 12

“The Army Washington was to command did not represent any existing nation. It only represented a loose alliance established by delegates chosen, most of them illegally, from separate colonies in opposition to the legal government of all and in defiance of one of the greatest military powers in the world.” 14

“Congress defined Washington’s task as the maintenance and preservation of American liberty. Washington was at that time profoundly convinced, as he was to assert again and again in later years, that this did not imply independence from the British Crown. (the Declaration of Independence lay more than a year in the future. )” 14

“Washington possessed to a superlative degree that quality which sociologists call “charisma”: personal magnetism that inspires awe, trust, and love.” 40

There is an interesting comparison made between Washington and John Adams. While both men had learned to think things out anew and for themselves, Washington appears to the author’s eyes “more exclusively shaped by America that was Adams. He relied for knowledge more on direct experience, which was usually native, than on books, which were usually imported. His calling as a planter, particularly as he developed it, depended infinitely less on precedent than Adams’ law. And Adams’ experience was limited to the well-settled, half-Europeanized American seaboard, while the wilderness, the shaper of so much American originality, had played a major role in shaping Washington. The army at Cambridge could hardly have had a more completely American commander.” 43

“at the very end of 1775, Shocking news came in across the ocean…. The King had now publicly declared that…. he was determined to smash by force a rebellious war manifestly being carried on for the purpose of establishing an independent empire. This speech was a turning point in American history, for it forced into innumerable reluctant minds the unwelcome conclusion that an independent empire might, indeed, become necessary. Washington was to remember that the speech made a great change in his own thinking.” 65

In early 1776 Washington read Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and tended to agree with him. 67.

“When Washington had first assumed the command, he had thought of the cause primarily in terms of enlightened self-interest and American patriotism. But by February 1776, he had concluded that the American example would point the way to the triumph of freedom everywhere. The Americans were fighting the cause of virtue and mankind, which made it all the more probable that divine Providence would not permit them to fail.” 94

After the loss off New York city in 1776,” Washington secretly begged his aides to assure him that the cause would go better… if he resigned.” 131

Washington argued for enlistment of three years or until the war ended in order to establish a permanent force and to reduce any dependency on the militia, which he considered unreliable. 134

By the end of 1776 Congress finally voted Washington “full power to order and direct all things relative to the department and to the operations of war.” 162. Washington on his own authority created new regiments that would have no specific state ties: “he had laid down the organizational beginnings off a truly united army suited to a United States that was not a regional alliance but a single unified nation. This seemed natural to Washington. Learning from his daily experience in camp, he had become one of the first Americans truly to take the continental view.” 164

The author argues that Washington’s surrender of power to Lee was dictated by no necessity and believes he thought ” it would be better for the United States if this desperate effort were entrusted to Lee. Although its importance has been overlooked, this magnanimous decision was surely one of the most signal acts of Washington’s entire career.” 166. (Lee of course was captured by the British in December 1776 and the issue resolved itself. All of this occurred following the Battle of White Plains when New York was abandoned by Washington and the British securely left in possession of it and its surroundings).

Thomas Conway. “Washington hated him as he hated few men his whole life long.” 241

“It was an aspect off Washington’s leadership that his emotions tended automatically to parallel those of the mass of the people: the very qualities that had made Conway hateful to him proved when publicly displayed to make the bullying braggart hateful to almost everyone.” 268

The author argues that while Washington had his enemies, “no evidence exists that Martha ever made a single one. She possessed dignity but it was utterly unassuming. She was not brilliant. Men could not remember anything she has said but remember her affability and charm. Women found her domestic and chatty: full of conversation about household details and grandchildren. Her discretion was unfailing – and everyone felt more pleased with themselves after having talked to her… what strangers did not recognize was her courage. Her temperament was apprehensive. She was certain when a letter did not arrive that the delay indicated disaster; she was terrified of travel and strange places and guns. Yet she came when summoned; complained only a little…” 282

“when he finally came to a firm conclusion, he erased from his mind all his former doubts. He had decided what was to be done. It only remained to do it.” 299

The author points out that British interests were more concerned with the West Indies especially with the entrance of France. 324

Washington never really trusted the French and worried that they might try to reconquer Canada which would pose serious problems for the United States expansion into the west. These suspicions where unfounded. 331

“Washington’s belief in patriotism was not chauvinism but rather a general principle which he considered equally applicable everywhere. It also helps explain his reluctance to entrust power in his army to volunteers from abroad.” 333

“Washington put forward the conception that was to remain the anchor of his strategic thinking: although other coups could weaken the enemy, the only blow that would by itself end the war would be to capture the British anchor base in New York.” 361

Chastellux’s description of Washington is one of the most eloquent ever written and it has been extremely influential in determining the attitudes of posterity toward the hero:” the strongest characteristic of this respectable man is the perfect harmony which reigns between the physical and moral qualities… a perfect whole that cannot be the product of enthusiasm, which rather would reject it… Brave without temerity, laborious without ambition, generous without prodigality, noble without pride, virtuous without severity, he seems always to have avoided passing beyond those limits where the virtues, by clothing themselves in more lively but more changeable and dark colors, may be mistaken for faults. This is the seventh year that he has commanded the Army and he has obeyed Congress: more need not be said. His stature is noble and lofty; he is well-built and exactly proportioned; his physiognomy mild and agreeable, but such as to render it impossible to speak particularly of any one of his features, so that, on leaving, you have only the recollection of a fine face. He has neither a grave nor a familiar air, his brow is sometimes marked with thought but never with worry….. He has not the imposing pomp of a Marechal de France who gives the order. A hero in a republic, he excites another sort of respect which seems to spring from the sole idea that the safety of each individual is attached to his person… the goodness and benevolence which characterize him are evident in all that surrounds him, but the confidence he calls forth never occasions improper familiarity.” 400–401

“The force of Washington’s personality was so basic a part of his nature that, while he treated those around him with courtesy and often affection, he was unconscious of how he overwhelmed them. And there was the problem created by his temper. He did his very best to keep it in check, but he was by nature irascible and frequently under great strain. Furthermore, as he refused to have infected teeth pulled lest he have nothing left but bare gums to chew with, he often suffered from nerve-racking toothaches. The explosions of such a forceful man must have been terrible to withstand; and then there were occasions when he neither exploded nor immediately forgave: he was ‘severe in his resentments, often keeping the nearest friend a long time in suspense as to what he thought’.” 413

After the surrender at Yorktown in October 1781, “the curtain fell on the greatest defeat which the European aristocratic way of life had so far ever suffered.” 464. {Does Flexner deliberately omit reference to Cromwell?}

Meeting of officers March 15, 1783: Washington addresses the officers who remain unmoved by his prepared speech and ends by announcing that he will read the letter from a member of Congress: “the officers stirred impatiently in their seats, and then suddenly every heart missed a beat. Something was the matter with His Excellency. He seems unable to read the paper. He paused in bewilderment. He fumbled in his waistcoat pocket. And then he pulled something only his intimates had seen him wear. A pair of glasses. With infinite sweetness and melancholy, he explained,’ Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country’. This simple statement achieved what all Washington’s rhetoric and all his arguments had been unable to achieve. The officers were instantly in tears, and, from behind the shining drops, their eyes looked with love at the commander who had led them all so far and long.” 507

“Americans can never be adequately grateful that George Washington possessed the power and the will to intervene effectively in what may well have been the most dangerous hour the United States has ever known.” 508 (this is a reference to the possible insurrection by the army).

December 23, 1783 Washington addresses Congress: “Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theater of action, and, bidding an affectionate farewell to this august body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.” 526

In his final chapter, Wexler summarizes his thoughts on Washington as the leader of the army during the revolutionary war. The title of the Chapter is appropriate: “Cincinnatus Assayed.” I find that most of his conclusions are borne out by the researched text he has provided in the body of the volume, so I will rapidly move through his conclusions:

“He remained to the end of the war a civilian serving half-reluctantly in uniform”. 531.

He believed “the crucial battles of the war were in the areas of public opinion….There can be no doubt that the British were totally outclassed in the warfare for the minds of men.” 534.

He was a man of tolerance and believed in freedom of thought. 535.

The victory was due to a combination of factors, not least the vastness of the land, the reluctance of the British to squander the lives of soldiers (too difficult to replace across an ocean). Also Washington evolved in his military leadership: “It was the triumph of a man who knows how to learn, not in the narrow sense of studying other people’s conceptions, but in the transcendent sense of making a synthesis of the totality of experience.” 536.

He never took a day’s furlough throughout his leadership of the army. 540

He sought no personal gain from his service (took no pay, asked only to have expenses covered). 540

He was an optimist, yet a realist. He never despaired, “he was always sure that the virtue of the men and the nobility of the cause would inspire beneficent Providence to carry them all to victory…” He was dedicated to freedom and believed free men would be better soldiers because they would fight for themselves as well as for truth. “Patriotism was for him the basic political virtue.” 542-3. “The best check on the aggression of kings was, as Washington saw it, the self-determination of peoples. This principle, if adequately disseminated and enforced,would give the inhabitants of every region an indisputable right to their own territory and encourage every man to join with his neighbours for the protection of the liberty and property of all. Since (so Washington believed) man was naturally good, a release from aristocratic restraints would permit the emergence of virtue: the result would be the creation of free, democratic, and peaceful states…. the cause of American freedom became, by extension, the cause of all mankind.” Washington believed in Providence – “some supernatural force…moved actively in the affairs of man…a virtuous force, furthering the welfare of mankind.” 543

Washington appreciated the superior mobility of his army, which was “based not only on self-reliance, but also on morale.” 544.

Flexner belives that Washington, unlike other generals (Grant, Eisenhower) did not “pass through two semi-independent careers, one as soldier, the other as President…[but] moved in one single straight line.” 547

He argues that Washington “realized that the congressmen struggled, even as he himself did, with woefully inadequate means…he was respectful and subordinate to Congress..” 548

Washington “accepted his preeminence…naturally…He did not seem conscious of how powerful he was, how grievously he outdazzled those around him….It was in his ability to recognize the great principles that Washington’s most fundamental greatness lay….he selected…the alternatives that were presented to him by the possibilities of his place and generation….His creativity was in the classical manner: the gift of seeing clearly, judging comprehensively and deeply. Yet he belonged to the romantic era in his disdain for precedent, his eagerness to think all matters out anew….Again and again to discover, when immersed in the welter of troubled times, the best routes ahead is a towering intellectual achievement. Gathering up complexity, he transmuted it into simplicity. His gift was to grasp so profoundly the heart of the matter that he could resolve what others endlessly argued about in a few clear sentences which, however radical their substance, carried the conviction of the obvious. And typically, the obvious that he discovered was inspiring. ‘It should be the highest ambition of every American,’ Washington wrote, ‘to extend his views beyond himself, and to bear in mind that his conduct will not only affect himself, his country, and his immediate posterity; but that its influence may be co-extensive with the world, and stamp political happiness or misery on ages yet unborn’.” 551-2.

Summary Notes at Conclusion of Volume 2:

Flexner has a very peculiar writing style, perhaps reflecting his immersion in the language of Washington’s time. I have no means of verifying his extensive notes on the sources for his arguments, but I am assuming his facts can be taken at reasonable face value. He takes some poetic licence in ascribing some motives to Washington, and one is never in any doubt about his profound respect for him. At the end of this volume, there can be no doubt that Washington’s leadership of the Continental Army from it inception until its disbanding was an extraordinary achievement, covering a span of eight years of the most challenging circumstances. Among his achievements, he held the Army together, and led it to victory; he respected and obeyed the Congress and resisted moves to have him take command of the country at the head of the army, despite the legitimate grievances of the army over back pay and promised pensions. He saw very clearly, much more than most, that maintaining a union of the colonies was essential to victory and to ultimate success for all Americans. His many faults, duly noted by Flexner, cannot really dent these achievements. However, Washington the man remains something of an enigma, since there is nothing in his early years to indicate just how he developed as he did. Perhaps this will become clearer as we progress through the next two volumes.

In the Bibliography, Flexner repeats his reliance on primary sources, both for Washington and “his close associates”. He also refers to his extended bibliography to cover “the more far-flung aspects of my tale” which has been too extensive for original research, and so he relies on secondary sources cited. He repeats his “major reliance” on Freeman’s biography of Washington. He concludes with this observation: “In such a book as this, originality must be sought through synthesis without bias, through fresh interpretation based on fact and insight, through a happy marriage of scholarship and art.” 557-8.

Volume 3: 1783-1793.

This volume covers George Washington’s first term as President. Washington had resigned from the army on December 23, 1783 and had returned to Mount Vernon. The author repeats his argument that “there is no indication in the floods of documents that have survived of any serious rift” between Martha and Washington. 32. Washington really enjoyed farming: “improvements in agriculture, Humphreys wrote, was Washington’s passion.” 44. However, the Mount Vernon Farm could not support itself for a variety of reasons (poor soil being one) and lost money season after season. 49– 50. The author spends a considerable amount of time on the dilemma of the Cincinnati Fraternity. Jefferson opposed this organization because membership was restricted to the eldest son of an original member, and Washington argued that the fraternity needed to be fully democratic. At the General Meeting of the fraternity in 1784 all of Washington’s reforms were adopted subject to ratification by the state societies. The state societies dragged their feet and eventually blocked the changes. 64– 68. The author refers to Washington’s broad vision of America as a place where” the poor, the needy, and the oppressed of the earth,” could thrive. 72. He also believed that a canal system could open up trade routes for the frontier and participated in the promotion of a Potomac canal . 74.

The Constitutional Convention opened on May 25, 1787 and Washington was unanimously elected by ballot to act as chairman. 117. The great apprehension at the time, following the Shay’s Rebellion, was the violent seizure of property by the poorer classes. 100. “Concerning the grand design of the new government Washington’s convictions were strong: it should be Republican, grounded on the will of the people, and it should, to the greatest feasible extent, silence the voices of the states in national concerns. These two principles taken together led to a third: the citizens of all states should be given an equal power in the national government, which meant that the citizens of the large states should not be prevented from outvoting the citizens of the small.” 124. On May 30,”With eight states present, a giant step have been achieved by a vote of six ayes, one no, and one divided…. A national government… ought to be established consisting of a supreme legislative, executive, and judiciary.” 127.

The author quotes Clinton Rossiter: “we cannot begin to understand the mind of a man like Washington unless we recognize his consuming belief in the existence of a common, enduring interest of the whole community that encompassed and yet rose above all private interests, that held out the hand of peace, order, and welfare to all men of all classes, and that provided the grand context of liberty, stability, and progress within which each man could pursue his own version of happiness.” 133. On August 17, 1787 the Convention voted unanimously for the Constitution. 136. In April, 1789, the Electoral College unanimously elected Washington as President. 173. In his inaugural address Washington did not you use the word God or Christ but rather,” following the phraseology of the philosophical deism he professed, he referred to ‘the invisible hand which conducts the affairs of men’, to ‘the benign parent of the human race’.” 184.

The only reference to Hamlet so far in the words of Washington occur following his illness when he first assumed office: “the want of regular exercise with the cares of office will, I have no doubt, hasten my departure for that country from whence no traveler returns.” 212.

“whatever was the situation in private, Washington had, in relation to his public image, a thinness of skin that reflected the shyness and diffidence which is so strangely accompanied his self-confidence and power. An effort to make him visibly a fool would have filled him with rage .” 221. The author refers to Washington’s impartiality in making appointments . 223. He also compares Washington to Jefferson, Jefferson to Hamilton. 244.

In 1792 Washington faced the prospect of having to use his veto on the bill reconstituting the House of Representatives. The split in Congress was a north/south split with Jefferson and Randolph, southerners, insisting that the bill was unconstitutional; while the northerners, Hamilton and Knox argued that it was constitutional. “After much discussion, Washington stated that he would negative the bill if Madison agreed with Randolph and that Jefferson agreed that he should. Madison agreed, and Washington finally used his veto. The upshot was that Congress forgot the fractions and established a House in which all state populations were treated alike.” 324.

In the early months of 1792, Washington notified Jefferson, Hamilton, Knox and Madison, but no one else, that he hoped to refuse a second term. This was a presidential election year. 349.

The author refers to the fact that Gouverneur Morris was Washington’s intimate friend . 356.

Jefferson writes to Washington in May 1792 that: “North and south will hang together, if they have you to hang on.” 365.

The Author refers to a letter from Eliza Powel: “for the student of Washington’s character, the greatest interest of this letter is its revelation of how an able woman, the possessor of Washington’s confidence and admiration, felt she could most effectively sway her friend.” 378. She argues that much of his popularity will be destroyed by enemies claiming that he has abandoned ship at a time of major crisis for fear of risking his reputation. 379.

On February 13, 1793, The electoral college chose Washington unanimously. 383

Washington opposed the excesses of the French Revolution but Jefferson did not. Washington “believed that extralegal violence, whether initiated by aristocrats or Republicans, traveled the same road.” 389.

The author points that Washington had failed as a young man in his military activities, had barely succeeded in the Revolutionary War, and was failing as a farmer at Mount Vernon. 398. He had however succeeded in his first term as President . 398. “No historian would deny the most important American statesmen in the generation after Washington were Madison, Hamilton, and Jefferson. To recognize such a constellation revealed the insight of genius; to get three such men in a single harness required both genius and the complexion of the times.” 399.

“Washington’s method for reaching a decision had been, at least since a revolutionary times, to balance arguments as on a pair of scales and then follow the direction tipped the beam.” 401.

“his fundamental function as President lay, in ‘obeying the dictates of my conscience’.” 403

The author has some misgivings about Jefferson’s treatment of Washington. 406-7.

The author argues that Washington’s mind was “ unconcerned with theoretical speculation. Certain broad principles came to him as revealed truth: freedom was better than tyranny; order than chaos; kindness than cruelty; peace than war. Royalty was evil; the government belonged to the people and it should be responsive to their will. The pursuit of happiness, which it was the government’s duty to encourage, included the pursuit of property; no man or groups of men, rich or poor, should be allowed to steal from each other. Government should be strong enough to protect as well as foster. No nation should dominate any other, and the United States in particular should keep out of foreign quarrels… Washington could see no real division between his advisers concerning the ultimate goal.” 412. [see his comments to Jefferson about this].

The author refers to Washington’s charisma and to the fact that Jefferson and Hamilton had the greatest respect and regard for the president, a sentiment almost universally shared at the time in America. That there were internal dilemmas that required resolution, most clearly manifested in the beliefs and personalities of Jefferson and Hamilton, was also universally recognized. However, this initial experiment in self governance had so far been successful, and this was due largely to Washington.

Volume 4: 1793-99.

The author notes that this volume ends 12 years of research and writing.

Washington was 62 years of age when he began his second term as President. The author provides an overview of the neutrality proclamation which involved as far as Jefferson was concerned a head-on collision between constitutional theory and practical necessity. The issue concerned the clause in the Constitution that provided that the President was to act with the ‘advice and consent’ of the Senate. “Jefferson accepted necessity, making unanimous the vote not to call Congress.” 31. Washington achieved this consensus by finally suspending debate and asking for written presentations which he would consider and then make up his own mind. 32. The author argues that “Washington believed that the Indians had equal rights with frontiersman. 49. The author argues that Jefferson’s departure from the Cabinet was a tragedy for Washington. 110. He now lacked an appropriate balance between the right and left extreme positions. He also devotes a chapter to Washington and slavery. He refers to a letter dated December 12 1793 to Arthur Young in which Washington states that he wished to free his slaves. 113. He also quotes a letter to Robert Morris in 1786 where he argues” I can only see that no man living wishes more sincerely than I do to see the abolition of it.” But that, Washington repeated, could only be done by legislative authority.” Washington wished to see some plan adopted by which slavery was abolished ‘by slow, sure, and imperceptible degrees’.” 121. The ratification of the constitution was possible only by the addition of a provision that the slave trade could not be interfered with on the federal level until 1808. 121.

Washington could never understand why a desire for peaceful coexistence was not universally shared by all humans. 136. The author refers to Washington’s experience with the Continental Army where he “learned from the men around him to visualize the whole nation, and, as he saw many another soldier walk the same intellectual and social road, the process had been repeated in the Constitutional Convention.” 187. “Washington’s theory was government by consent.” 188. Thus he opposed the democratic societies which he saw as permanent, self-created institutions which would second-guess decisions of Congress which had achieved consensus through due process. 192. Washington’s public condemnation of the democratic societies reflected his anger and rage, so argues the author, demonstrating the lack of solid counsel from his Cabinet. He argues the Washington realized his error. “As President of the United States, he never again engaged in any public denunciation of any aspect of the opposition. Nor did he ever again make a public statement which could be rationally interpreted as limiting in anyway the basic freedoms of the people.” 192.

In early 1795 both Knox and Hamilton retired, and Washington became more dependent on Randolph than he ever had been dependent on any one man during his long career. 213. The author devotes some time debating Washington’s decision to condemn Randolph, which now appears to have been mistaken, but it does demonstrate one side of Washington’s character, namely that betrayal is final: “he never again in his writings mentioned his one time friend’s name…. Washington now believed he was also a knave. And yet it was true that Washington had relied on this man as he never had on any other.” 241.

By 1796 Washington was stating that he would not run for a third term arguing that an early example of rotation in an office of so high and delicate nature would accord with the republican spirit of the Constitution and the ideas of liberty and safety entertained by the people. 272. The author admits that Washington’s Farewell Address was written largely by Hamilton, and argues that it is more of a symbiotic draft, where two minds meet based on long mutual understanding. 307. He describes Washington’s decision to retire at the end of the second term as “so climactic an act that the precedent he thus established was not violated for more than a century and then restored by a constitutional amendment.” 304.

Washington celebrated his 66th birthday in his final year of office and returned to Mount Vernon on March 15, 1797. The author notes that “never once in his writings did he wonder how any dead hero would have dealt with the problems that he has to face. He hardly ever looked to the past.” 358. In 1798 President Adams, through McHenry, invited Washington to accept command over ‘our armies’. Congress instantly and unanimously ratified the appointment on July 2. Washington’s subsequent dispute with Adams over the appointment of his second in command is viewed with sadness by the author: “in many another man Washington’s conduct might well seem no more than a heightened aberration. Those of us who have in these volumes (or elsewhere) followed his long career can only view his hysteria with deep sadness. We mourn not only that the great man should become so disfigured, but for all humanity. Not even the most resplendent hero is immune to the passing years.” 412. However when he was being pressured to intervene in serious political issues, Washington responded: “the vessel is afloat or very nearly so, and considering myself as a passenger only, I shall trust to the mariners whose duty it is to watch, to steer it into a safe port.” The author then adds “this statement was George Washington’s last important political act.” 431.

He discusses Washington’s efforts to free his slaves after his death with the complication of Martha’s dower slaves, and compares Washington’s record to Jefferson’s, who kept slaves and retained then in bondage in his will. 447.

“One of the reasons that it is hard for us to appreciate the depths of Washington’s intellect is that what he said seems, to historical insight, obvious. But to identify, while deep in the trenches of conflict, what the future would consider obvious, is a towering intellectual achievement.” 479.

“In 1798, he told the actor John Bernard…’ I can clearly foresee that nothing but the routing out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union, by consolidating it in a common bond of principle.’ Had the civil conflict which he dreaded come in his lifetime, Washington might well have, as Randolph said he stated, moved north. But it would have broken his heart.” The author adds a note: “none of this three other Presidents of ‘the Virginia dynasty’, not Jefferson or Madison or Monroe, followed Washington into freeing more than a few especially privileged slaves.” 485.

“He had learned to hesitate in thought, but he never hesitated in execution. He was, in fact, once he moved, completely committed. His slow method of reaching decisions may well have appealed to Washington because it baffled his natural impetuosity.” 488.

“He habitually radiated good humor…. Yet those who knew him well felt in him always a fundamental gravity.” 489. The author refers to Washington’s “fundamental self-reliance”. 491. Martha “was probably the only human being the mature Washington allowed access to his soft, defenceless inner core.” 493. “Washington’s shyness was an aspect of what was the most amazing of all his characteristics: the diffidence that traveled down the years in tandem with his self-confident power..” 494.” To an extent open to very few men in power, he was able to go his own we way – and he had an overriding sense of direction…. The General assumed his command devoid of personal obligations. His allegiance was to Congress not as a group of politicians who had voted for him but as an entity representing the people.” 495-6. “He achieved the Presidency by the negative act of saying nothing… Again Washington owed his eminence to no specific group of men, to no man outside his own skin.” 497. “The two publications which seem to have moved him most were both written in America: Payne’s Common Sense and The Federalist.” 499.

Flexner concludes by arguing that Washington is “the individual who did more than any other one man to create and preserve the republic.” 8. He concludes as follows: ‘this biography may, I hope, serve the current need, since it describes the career of a man who, through the storms of personal temperament and outside circumstance, laboured to keep virtue his guiding star.” 9.


Flexner spent twelve years on this work. He had previously written on “American Painting”, on American Medicine, Steamboats, and Benedict Arnold. In some ways he is a fine example of what the American Experience is all about – the free pursuit of happiness in all its forms. He is excited about his subject and is finally enthralled by Washington. He knows what it is to pursue a vision over a significant time span and to persevere regardless of obstacles. He does not appear ever to have commanded other men, who must rely on his judgment for survival. Nor does he appear to have been a Chief Executive Officer who must make final policy decisions in a context of perpetually serious difference of opinions on issues which have no precedent to support one decision over another. Nor does he appear to have had any profound disappointments in the love of a woman, nor betrayal by close associates whom he trusts. Nor does he appear to have had to deal with other people whose support he must ensure, when he recognizes the fundamental flaws they live out in their lack of character. These basic aspects of living seem to me to be beyond the scope of this writer. I would argue that it would take a Shakespeare, or a Beethoven, to actually confront Washington and perhaps uncover some of his interiority in all of its complexity. Judging by the various Youtube extracts from other authors and ‘authorities’ on Washington (Chernow, Ellis, McCullough, Freemen, etc), we still await someone with the required gravitas and experience to write such a biography.

  • JOHN ADAMS, by David McCullough, New York, 2001.

I read this biography in the hope that it might shed some additional light on Washington. Adams, after all, had been a major voice in the initial Continental Congress that appointed Washington commander of the Continental Army, and had been instrumental in the final passing of the Constitution. He had served as Washington’s Vice President and had succeeded him as the first duly elected President in the long succession of US Presidents since Washington. He was then defeated by Jefferson at the end of his first term and stepped away, as Washington had, thus ensuring a peaceful transition of power.

Adams seems to have been slightly jealous of Washington’s ability to command the trust and loyalty of others without having to verbally convince them of his own thoughts in any significant detail. This was in marked contrast to Adams’ tendency to pontificate regularly and at times even to overstate his case, to the annoyance of others. (He admired Washington’s famous “reserve.” 19). If anything, Adams, for all his significant achievements (effectively summarized, 566), remains overshadowed by Washington. He was consistently loyal to Washington while he served as Vice President, and did attempt to maintain Washington’s own basic positions during his own Presidency, which is more than can be said for Jefferson (both as a member of Washington’s cabinet and later as Adams’ Vice President, and later as President).

In his favour, he quite openly opposed slavery, which was in line with the majority of his fellow citizens of Massachusetts, and saw, like Washington, the fundamental contradiction in terms which slavery represented within the context of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In his later correspondence with Jefferson, he condemns the continuation of slavery and was quite pessimistic as to its effect on the future of the union. (632-33). In this instance, he lacked Washington’s basic unarticulated belief in the ultimate triumph of reason. By freeing his own slaves in his will, Washington did lay down the example he hoped all slave owners would follow in the future. Adams, in fact, is the only President in the evolving Republic’s first five Presidents to be slave-free.

His pre-occupation with the title of the President, combined with Franklin’s previous derogatory remarks about him, may well have influenced Washington to remove Adams from his inner cabinet, and to seek his advice rarely, while still treating him with dignity and respect. I doubt very much if Washington ever questioned Adams’ integrity as a genuinely committed patriot, and that this was the basis of his respect for him.

Overall, I have not found this book on Adams to be a source of much additional insight into Washington.

  • Subsequent History of the US Revolutionary Republic:

The extraordinary expansion into the West, begun with the Treaty of Paris, to be followed by the Louisiana Purchase, the inclusion of Florida,Texas, California and the Oregon Territories would have resonated well with Washington, who seemed, since youth, fascinated by the possibilities of western expansion. That the revolutionary republic could subsequently only be maintained by a Civil War would not have pleased Washington, who always believed in negotiation, compromise, consensus and the rule of reason. Had the Union and the Confederacy spent the money they spent on the war on compensation for slave owners and investments in slave education and planned progress towards full citizenship, the outcomes could have been quite different.

Lincoln, for all his achievements, cannot really be compared to Washington, who could never have appointed a Johnston as Vice President in the knowledge that he might die in office. Washington’s acceptance of the choice of Adams was reasonable and, whatever their differences, both had the highest respect for each other’s integrity. The efforts at reconstruction following the Civil war were essentially degraded because of the perpetual Johnston Presidential vetoes which were perpetually overruled. This would never have been Washington’s idea of democracy or due process.

  • Summary:

Washington remains an extraordinary character, one still difficult to understand fully, but one who, despite all sorts of problems and challenges, nevertheless led the fledgling Revolutionary Republic of the United States into independence as a sovereign state. Throughout, he consistently sought the support of others, in particular of the Congress. He also saw quite clearly that this republic could not continue if the principle of liberty were not taken seriously as a political reality, in particular with reference to slavery, but also with reference to the aboriginal peoples of the West who needed to be treated justly, within the law and within the Constitution. And while most of his actions did indeed serve as models for future generations of generals and presidents, and have been followed quite rigorously, his final act of freeing his own slaves, despite the wide public circulation in newspapers across the Union of the text of his will, failed to influence any of his immediate Virginia successors to the Presidency, in particular, Jefferson. In this he would have been singularly disappointed, because, as ever, he expected more from others, based on his own personal example, which had commanded so many during his lifetime.

It can only be assumed that the failure of the American Revolution to address the issue of slavery somehow reduced its influence on Europeans, although the French Revolution itself made no difference to its West Indies slave plantations until Toussaint Louverture rebelled and drove the French out of Haiti. Only then did the French allow freedom to the Haitian slaves, only to follow up, in later years, with harsh forced demands for exorbitant recompense which destroyed all chances of the new Haitian Republic becoming economically viable.

It remains intriguing to imagine just what effect a better understanding of Washington by Beethoven may have had on Beethoven’s creative output.