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Washington And Flexner

May 2024
3min read

We are happy to announce that James Thomas Flexner has just received the National Book Award for George Washington: Anguish and Farewell, the fourth and final volume of his biography of the great man, as well as a special PuIitzer Prize citation for the whole series. Over the years we have published no fewer than nine excerpts from this monumental work, and we are deeply pleased to see the author honored. Flexner’s acceptance speech, an eloquent personal statement of his feelings about Washington after more than a decade of tracing his career, appears below.

In the twelve years that I have worked on a biography of Washington, I have made various unexpected discoveries. Surely the most surprising was that George Washington is alive. Or, to put it more accurately, millions of George Washingtons are alive. Washingtons have been born and have died for some two centuries.

Almost every historical figure is regarded as a dead exemplar of a vanished epoch. But Washington exists within the minds of most Americans as an active force. He is a multitude of living ghosts, each shaped less by eighteenth-century reality than by the structure of the individual brain in which he dwells. An inhabitant of intimate spaces, Washington is for private reasons sought out or avoided, loved or admired, hated or despised. In my wanderings of a dozen years, I have come across almost no Americans who proved, when the subject was really broached, emotionally indifferent to George Washington.

The roles played by the mythological George Washingtons fall into two major categories: one Freudian, the other a procession of mirrors reflecting people’s attitudes toward the situation of the United States at their time.

In an essay that had no specific reference to Washington, Freud described how “infantile fantasies” concerning people’s own fathers can shape their conceptions of historical figures. “They obliterate,” Freud wrote, “the individual features of their subject’s physiognomy, they smooth over the traces of his life’s struggles with internal and external resistances, and they tolerate in him no vestiges of human weakness or imperfection. Thus, they present us with what is in fact a cold, strange, ideal figure instead of a human being to whom we might feel ourselves distantly related.”

Here is, of course, an exact description of the marble image of Washington which so many Americans harbor—and resent. I have been amazed by the infantile glee with which people I have met made fun of my writing a biography of Washington. Was I recording the clacking of wooden false teeth? Had I ever tried to envision how Washington would have looked in long winter underwear? These mockers often dance up and down with self-satisfaction, like a small child who has dared express an impious thought about his father.

Down the years, Washington’s second mythological role has been as a national symbol, an alternate to the American flag. In periods when Americans were happy with their society, they have thought of Washington with adulation. At times of resentment and self-distrust, the mythological Washingtons have been resented and distrusted. I have discovered, sometimes to my considerable embarrassment, that the current attitude toward Washington—and toward me as his biographer—is often hostile. Their denial of this prejudice makes me particularly grateful to the judges who are honoring my book today.

My twelve years’ effort has been to disentangle the Washington who actually lived from all the mythological Washingtons, and in so doing I have inevitably—for that was the fact —revealed a great and good man. There have been in all history few men who possessed unassailable power who used that power so gently and selfeffacingly for what their best instincts told them was the welfare of their neighbors and all mankind.

In being ourselves untrue to the highest teaching of the American tradition, we of this generation have tended to denigrate that tradition, to seek out all that was unworthy, to emphasize whatever justifies national distrust. In so doing, we have discarded an invaluable heritage. We are blinding our eyes to stars that lead to the very ideals many of us most admire: the sanctity of the individual, the equality of all men before the law, government responsive to the people, freedom for all means of communication, avoidance of what Washington denounced as international “ambition,” the self-determination of peoples everywhere.

To find again the American ideals we have lost, we may not return to our national beginnings with the blinded eyes of idolatry or chauvinism. Let us examine deeply every flaw, every area, such as slavery, where the founding fathers were untrue to what they professed. Let us examine Washington not as the spotless figure delineated by infantile fantasies or by selfseeking wavers of the flag. Let us determine without prejudice exactly what happened, exactly how men behaved. If we do this, we shall, so I am profoundly convinced, find, in the dark valley where we often stand, inspiration.

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