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"Mr. President": George Washington and the Making of the Nation's Highest Office

by Harlow Giles Unger

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Although the framers gave the president little authority, George Washington knew whatever he did would set precedents for generations of future leaders. To ensure their ability to defend the nation, he simply ignored the Constitution when he thought it necessary.

In a revealing new look at the birth of American government, “Mr. President”


Although the framers gave the president little authority, George Washington knew whatever he did would set precedents for generations of future leaders. To ensure their ability to defend the nation, he simply ignored the Constitution when he thought it necessary.

In a revealing new look at the birth of American government, “Mr. President” describes Washington’s presidency in a time of continual crisis, as rebellion and attacks by foreign enemies threatened to destroy this new nation. Constantly weighing preservation of the Union against preservation of individual liberties and states’ rights, Washington assumed more power with each crisis. In a series of brilliant but unconstitutional maneuvers he forced Congress to cede control of the four pillars of executive power: war, finance, foreign affairs, and law enforcement.

Drawing on rare documents and letters, Unger shows how Washington combined political cunning and sheer genius to seize ever-widening powers, impose law and order while ensuring individual freedom, and shape the office of President of the United States.

Editorial Reviews

In The Unexpected George Washington and America's Second Revolution, bestselling author Harlow Giles Unger (John Quincy Adams) gave us new glimpses into the life of the Father of Our Country. In "Mr. President", he provides his most provocative view yet of our first president. According to Unger, Washington possessed a strong conviction that the Constitution's pronounced limitation of presidential powers spelled a major threat to the preservation and health of the new embattled nation. With telling precision, this revisionist presidential history describes how the Founding Father leveraged control of war, finance, foreign affairs, and law enforcement from an often resistant Congress. A revealing new look at a presidency that set a new standard.

Publishers Weekly
In the early days of his presidency, Washington found himself bored and idle, yet as acclaimed historian Unger (John Quincy Adams) reveals in this fast-paced chronicle of Washington’s presidency, circumstances soon arose that would allow him to define and shape the executive office. Following the Revolution, the new republic lacked political and economic structure; but when Washington and others proposed scrapping the Articles of Confederation and replacing them with a constitution that would frame the contours of a federal government and its powers, he faced a different kind of fight than he had with the British. Nevertheless, as he led the young nation through numerous struggles—tax revolts, attempts by foreign powers to overthrow the government, and frontier wars with Indians—he established “seven pillars of power” that would define the American presidency: “the power to control executive appointments, foreign policy, military affairs, government finances, and federal law enforcement, along with the power to legislate by presidential proclamation and to issue secret fiats under the cloak of executive privilege.” After three years in office, Washington had “transformed the office of the president from that of an impotent figurehead to one that commanded almost as much power as the British king he had overthrown... at Yorktown.” (Nov.)
Kirkus Reviews
What starts out as a hagiographic testimony to George Washington matures into the thorough treatment readers expect from prolific history writer Unger (John Quincy Adams, 2012, etc.). After the ratification of the Constitution and election of Washington as president, both he and Vice President John Adams found there was little for them to do. Adams, at least, had the Senate to preside over, but the first president's strength and eminence gave him the power to build a strong executive branch from a strictly ceremonial post. The author focuses on the seven pillars of the office and elaborates on the near disasters that the young country faced. Without Washington's drive and insistence on resolution, civil war was a near certainty. He developed and solidified the prerogatives not defined in the Constitution: executive appointments, foreign policy, military affairs, government finances, federal law enforcement, presidential proclamation and executive privilege. Washington felt his Cabinet should reflect the geographic and political diversity of the United States, but regional differences threatened its effectiveness. Southern states-rights supporters butted heads with the Northern Federalists, and cooperation was nonexistent as both Hamilton and Jefferson fed vitriol to the newspapers they controlled. Rivals making up his Cabinet may have worked for Lincoln, but not even Washington's strength could force these men to collaborate. Hamilton's bank and the assumption of the states' war debt caused the first rift, and only its unqualified success quieted that storm. The threat of war with France during the Genet affair, the Whiskey Rebellion and the discord in his Cabinet would have daunted a less forceful man. A highly focused book concentrating on a small but significant part of the evolution of American government.
From the Publisher

“Unger gives our precious American history the backbone it deserves and reveals more of Washington the man than Washington the demigod.”—New York Journal of Books

“[A] thoroughly researched and delightfully written book.… A real thriller of a tale told with skill and authority.”—Washington Times

“[A] fast-paced chronicle of Washington's presidency.”—Publishers Weekly

"Truly enlightening insight into the earliest days of the U.S. government.... As eye-opening as it is fascinating."—San Francisco Book Review

Library Journal, 12/20/2013

“Written with spirit and some subtlety, this work demonstrates that George Washington's contributions to the character of federal executive powers have been nearly as influential as his military leadership. Recommended to readers in early American and presidential history and U.S. political science.”

January Magazine, 12/4/2013

“A very good book…In his typically lucid and conversational style, Unger paints a never-before-seen portrait of Washington as a surprisingly beleaguered leader whose challenges in many ways echo those of the current occupier of the White House.”

The Washington Lawyer, January 2014

“Unger [is] a leading historian of the revolutionary era.”

Product Details

Da Capo Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

Meet the Author

A veteran journalist, broadcaster, educator, and historian, Harlow Giles Unger is a former Distinguished Visiting Fellow in American History at Mount Vernon and the author of twenty books, including six biographies of America’s Founding Fathers and three other histories of the early republic. He lives in New York City.

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