American history, biographies, book reviews, George Washington, James Thomas Flexner, presidential biographies, Presidents
“George Washington and the New Nation (1783-1793)” is the third in Thomas Flexner’s four-volume series on George Washington. This volume covers Washington’s life from his restless (and short-lived) retirement at Mt. Vernon following the American Revolution to the beginning of his second term as our nation’s first President.
This third part of Flexner’s “mini-series” on Washington picks up nicely – and effortlessly – where the second left off. And true to expectation based on his previous works, Flexner’s story-telling abilities again proved superior, and his command of the facts of the day quite remarkable. Happily, this volume was written in a style of language somewhat more modern than Volume II (and certainly its predecessor), helping the book move quickly and efficiently.
At first blush, it may seem little happened during the first four years of Washington’s presidency – other than the important task of the federal government beginning to coalesce. But as the new nation struggled to sort through the delicate dance of checks and balances required by the new Constitution, the Indians (along with both the British and Spanish) caused persistent troubles on the frontier, and Alexander Hamilton aggressively advocated for, and helped build, what essentially became the United States’ first “central bank” against the loud protests of Jefferson, Madison and many others.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Ocean, a large number of French citizens began to violently revolt against their aristocratic leadership (an ally of the United States during the Revolutionary War) and the capital of the United States was moved from New York to Philadelphia and then even further south to the rural banks of the Potomac River, in a delicate and complex compromise, to what is now Washington DC.
And while we tend to believe the politics of our day to be distressingly challenged and unique, they hardly seem any worse or more grating than those of the earliest years of our government when Hamilton and Jefferson seemed not unlikely to rip the new nation into two distinct entities. For anyone who thinks that cutthroat political in-fighting and the ever-looming threat of a massive national debt are unique to contemporary citizenry, a quick perusal of this volume and its tales will shock the casual reader with a powerful wake-up call.
Overall, though the early days of our nation may not have been quite as exciting as those spent fighting the British for independence and marching a bedraggled army across the eastern seaboard, Flexner’s third volume does far more than adequate justice to the times. Indeed, his analysis of Washington and his political contemporaries during the ten years beginning in 1783 is both penetrating and remarkably uncanny.
I am almost compelled to read the volume again, for fear that I may have missed an important moment or interesting twist in American history somewhere. But the fourth and final volume of the series sits on the edge of my desk, and although I claim to remember most of what happened in Washington’s final years, the last 500 pages of the quartet (tetrology?) are calling my name rather loudly.
Overall rating: 4½ stars
Franklin R. Robinson said:
I’m big fan of this series, so far. Just finished this volume about a month. This should be required reading for any study of the early republic. I thought it was outstanding.