Oil on canvas. National Portrait Gallery (Smithsonian), Washington, DC.
James Monroe, 1816
Washington was imperfect. In strictly military terms, he does not merit comparisons that have sometimes been made between him and generals like Marlborough, Frederick the Great, Napoleon, or Robert E. Lee. Yet he remains a remarkable man, one of those Tolstoyan figures whose acts determine the course of history. James Thomas Flexner has called him
the indispensable man. Nobody — not Nathanael Green or Henry Knox, and certainly not Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, or John Adams — united the military, political, and personal skills that made Washington unique ... without George Washington there could have been no victory in the Revolutionary War, no United States. As a soldier he was erratic but competent. As a man he was impulsive, vindictive, brave, hardworking, intelligent, and virtuous. And as a leader he was great. Those who mourned Washington’s passing in 1799 were right to regard him, for all his flaws, as the savior of his country.