by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Nearly four decades have passed since James Thomas Flexner released The Indispensable Man, his single-book version of an earlier four-volume biography of George Washington. In the intervening decades, plenty of additional scholars have taken their crack at the first American president.
But Flexner’s work still offers value, especially in the recent illustrated edition this reader just completed. In addition to Flexner’s original book, the latest edition features portraits of key players, maps, full texts of key Washington documents, and other “bonus features.” Yet the primary draw is still Flexner’s observations, including the following passage about the old general’s approach to political action.
The people had two methods of expressing dis-pleasure: one was the ballot box, the other, the calling of a mass meeting that would in a resolution express their views to the government. Washington visualized these meetings as arising from the neighborhood, rather than being engineered, as the [pro-French] Democratic Societies were, from some political center. As president, he paid attention to every such resolution, himself answering each message in an individual reply. Thus the neighborhood could, when it felt strongly enough, establish direct contact with the president.
Everything that intervened between the people in their neighborhoods and the federal government, Washington regarded as an impediment to the true functioning of the Republican system. This went for the state governments with their attendant flocks of politicians serving local views. And it went for “demagogues,” whose object was not, he contended, to give the people the materials from which they could make up their own minds but rather to sell them predigested opinions, make them not thinkers but followers. Washington regarded the Democratic Societies as the creation and stamping grounds of demagogues. He deplored the adversary theory which sees government as a tug-of-war between the holders of opposite views, one side essentially vanquishing the other. Washington saw the national capital as a place where men came together not to tussle but to reconcile disagreements. This attitude grew out of his entire experience and also from the nature of his own genius. The Revolution had been won only by gathering as many people as possible into the cause. His greatest fear for the Constitutional Convention was that the delegates would arrive with their hands so tied by regional instructions that they could not learn from one another, working out by mutual understanding and compromise a government satisfactory to a whole far-flung nation. And Washington’s own greatest mental gift was to be able to bore down through partial arguments to the fundamental principles on which everyone could agree.
The passage offers plenty of interesting ideas to ponder. Among them: the notion that the “neighborhood” was the proper starting point for political action. Washington did not use the term, but it sounds as if he might have endorsed the value of subsidiarity.