George Washington and the Making of the Nation's Highest Office


By Harlow Giles Unger

Formats and Prices




$11.99 CAD



  1. ebook $9.99 $11.99 CAD
  2. Trade Paperback $15.99 $19.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around October 29, 2013. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

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.



My deepest thanks to my friend and mentor John P. Kaminski, one of America’s outstanding constitutional scholars, who was kind enough to review the manuscript of this book. Historian, author, educator, lecturer, documentary editor, and patriot, Dr. Kaminski was founder and director of the Center for the Study of the American Constitution at the University of Wisconsin (Madison), and the longtime editor-in-chief of one of the nation’s most important historical treasures: The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution.

I am most grateful, as well, to Da Capo Press publisher John Radziewicz; to my editor Robert Pigeon, the executive editor at Da Capo; and to Lissa Warren, Vice President and Director of Publicity (and an author herself). Many others at Da Capo Press and the Perseus Books Group have made enormous contributions to the production and distribution of this book, among them Kevin Hanover, Director of Marketing and the extraordinary Perseus Books Group sales force; marketing executive Sean Maher; Cisca L. Schreefel, Manager of Editorial Production; and copyeditor Martha Whitt. To all of you, I thank you not only for your professional help but for your warm friendship and patience.

One last expression of gratitude and acknowledgment for his contribution to this and all my other books goes to the late Edward W. Knappman, my literary agent since I started writing books on American history. A brilliant scholar, publisher, and editor before he began representing authors, Ed founded New England Publishing Associates with his wife Elizabeth Knappman, and the two were instrumental in introducing dozens of authors to the public. I owe my career as an author to Ed and shall always miss him.


Most Americans were still celebrating their Revolutionary War victory when fresh sparks of rebellion flared in Philadelphia. By 1786, they had burst into flames and spread northward to New York and Massachusetts, then southward into Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. By 1791, they lapped onto the Blue Ridge, across the Shenandoah, and over the Appalachians, where they engulfed the entire frontier, as angry mobs swelled into an army ready to fight for independence . . . and not from Britain—but from the United States!

Goaded by the press, foreign agents, and ambitious home-grown demagogues, tens of thousands of American farmers vilified President George Washington, his government, Congress, the courts, and the army—much as they had vilified King George III, the British Parliament, and the Redcoats two decades earlier in 1776.

“If ever a nation was debauched by a man,” growled a correspondent in Philadelphia’s Aurora, “the American nation has been debauched by WASHINGTON! Let the history of the federal government instruct mankind that the masque of patriotism may be worn to conceal the foulest designs against the liberties of a people.” Another writer urged the President to “retire immediately; let no flatterer persuade you to rest one hour longer at the helm of state.”1

Only two decades earlier, Washington and members of Congress had led Americans in rebellion against British taxation, calling it “the horror of all free states, wresting your property from you . . . and laying open to insolent tax-gatherers, [your] houses, the scenes of domestic peace and comfort.”2 Washington growled to a British friend at the time, “I think the Parliament of Great Britain hath no more right to put their hands in my pocket, without my consent, than I have to put my hands into yours for money.”3

Now, Congress was sending its own “insolent tax-gatherers” across the nation to wrest properties from those who wouldn’t or couldn’t pay taxes. Even more appalling: George Washington, “the father of our country,” was ready to lead an army to enforce American tax laws, assailing his fellow citizens “for creating discord”—just as the British government had assailed him “for creating discord” after Parliament had passed the Stamp Act in 1765.

“The Constitution and laws must strictly govern,” Washington thundered as he prepared to call up troops to crush farmer opposition to taxes in western Pennsylvania. It was every American patriot’s worst nightmare come true—George Washington turned tyrant—a George IV.4

Only four years earlier, in 1788, Virginia governor Edmund Randolph, who had been Washington’s aide-de-camp at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, warned that the new American Constitution was a “fetus of monarchy.”5 His fellow Virginian Patrick Henry agreed, insisting that the Constitution would simply replace Britain’s parliamentary and royal tyranny with homegrown congressional and presidential tyranny. “Liberty will be lost and tyranny must and will arise,” Henry protested. “As this government stands, I despise and abhor it.”6

But President Washington remained firm in his determination to preserve the government and the Union, insisting that “the daring and factious spirit which has arisen to overturn the laws and to subvert the Constitution ought to be subdued. If that is not done . . . we may bid adieu to all government in this country. . . . Nothing but anarchy and confusion can ensue. . . . If the minority . . . are suffered to dictate to the majority . . . there can be no security for life, liberty or property.”7

Then, in one of the defining events in the creation of the U.S. presidency, Washington startled his countrymen by ignoring constitutional limits on presidential powers and ordering troops to crush tax protests by American citizens—much as the British government had tried, and failed, to do in the years leading up to the American Revolution.

It was not the first time—nor would it be the last—that Washington would assume—or as critics charged, “usurp”—powers not granted by the Constitution. Indeed, from the moment he took office in the spring of 1789, Washington had been obsessed with establishing the President as “a supreme power to govern the general concerns of a confederated republic.”8 Fearing anarchy, disunion, and an end to American freedom if he failed to act decisively, he transformed himself—and the presidency—from a relatively impotent figurehead into America’s most powerful leader, creating what modern scholars have called the “imperial presidency.”9 Although often associated with twentieth-and twenty-first-century presidents, the imperial presidency was George Washington’s creation over eight tumultuous years, as one by one, he raised seven pillars of power that sustain the mighty American presidential edifice today—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.

Washington’s steady assumption of ever more extra-constitutional powers during his years in office came as no surprise to tens of thousands of Patrick Henry’s followers. After the Constitutional Convention, Henry—and at least five delegates to the convention itself—condemned the secret proceedings and the Constitution they produced as nothing less than a bloodless coup d’état.

The Confederation Congress had called the convention “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation . . . [to] render the federal constitution, adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the union.”10 Instead, convention delegates—the so-called framers—ignored the instructions. “That they exceeded their power is perfectly clear,” Patrick Henry roared. “The federal convention ought to have amended the old system. For this purpose they were solely delegated. The object of their mission extended to no other consideration.”11

With George Washington presiding, the Constitutional Convention voted not only to proceed in secret, but to discard the Articles of Confederation and overthrow the old U.S. government. Still operating in secret, they then wrote a new constitution that established a new form of government, with a legislature armed with most of the powers of the British Parliament that Americans had struggled to destroy during eight torturous years of rebellion. Only thirty-nine of the fifty-five delegates who came to the convention stayed to the end, and three of them refused to sign the document. Virginia planter George Mason, a neighbor of George Washington, raged that the document gave the government “dangerous power” and that it would end “in monarchy or a tyrannical aristocracy.” He affirmed that he “would sooner chop off my right hand than put it to the Constitution as it now stands.”12

The framers made a tacit recognition of republicanism with a disingenuous assertion in the preamble that “We the people” had ordained and established “this Constitution for the United States of America,” but Mason, Henry, and other “antifederalists” saw through the ruse. “The Constitution has been formed without the knowledge or idea of the people,”13 Mason growled. Patrick Henry was equally furious: “Who authorized them to speak the language of We, the People? The people gave them no power to use their name.

“The new form of government,” Henry argued, “will oppress and ruin the people. Our rights and privileges are endangered . . . the rights of conscience, trial by jury, liberty of the press, all your immunities and franchises, all pretensions to human rights and privileges are rendered insecure, if not lost.”14.

Within a year after Washington’s new government had assumed power, Virginia Governor Henry (“Light-Horse Harry”) Lee declared Patrick Henry a prophet: “His predictions are daily verified. His declarations . . . on all the doings of government already have been undeniably proved . . . we can be relieved, I fear, only by disunion.”15

Those were not words Washington had hoped to hear. After leading the war of independence for eight years, then struggling for six years to unite the states into a republic, Washington believed that “no morn ever dawned more favorably than ours.” With chaos and anarchy abounding about him, however, Washington proclaimed, “Wisdom and good examples are necessary at this time to rescue the political machine from the impending storm.”16


A Mutiny over Bounties

High winds and bitter cold had paralyzed the nation; solid ice encased the island of Manhattan for the first time since white men had landed, while Chesapeake Bay froze from its head to the mouth of the Potomac. Washington’s army was close to “dissolution or starving. . . .

“The soldiers eat every kind of horse food but hay,” Washington had complained bitterly from his Morristown, New Jersey, quarters in January 1780. “Sometimes it has been five or six days together without bread . . . at other times as many days without meat, and once or twice two or three days without either.”1

His appeals for relief from the Confederation Congress went unheeded. Washington—as furious as his troops—found it useless to explain to them that the Articles of Confederation the states had approved in 1777 for their “common defense” had failed to give the Continental Congress powers to tax the people for the moneys to feed the armies it put into the field. And the Articles left him, as commander in chief, powerless to do anything about it. Far from creating the “perpetual union” of its preamble, the Articles asserted that each state retained “its sovereignty, freedom and independence and every power, jurisdiction and right . . . not delegated to the United States”—including collection of import duties, the largest single source of revenues in the Americas. States with the best port facilities, however, had a virtual monopoly on those revenues, and they vetoed every effort to force them to share their revenues with the Confederation—even if it meant starving the troops in the Continental Army. Virginia proposed a compromise with a federal tariff on imports limited to 5 percent and lasting only twenty-five years, with all federal receipts earmarked for wartime expenses. New York, however, rejected it, arguing that its effects would be patently unfair: States that bought the most imports would pay the most taxes, regardless of actual war debts, while states with the greatest war debts could pay the least taxes by simply reducing imports.

In the field, however, the army had little patience for the arguments of posturing politicians in Congress. After languishing for months with no pay and too little food and clothing, troops in Pennsylvania and New Jersey mutinied. “Officers and men have been almost perishing for want,” Washington explained to New Jersey officials. “Their distress has in some instances prompted the men to commit depredations on the property of the inhabitants.”2

With powers bordering on the mystical at times, Washington was able to calm the mutineers, appealing to them not to discard the “time, blood, and treasure” they had invested in the war. The British, he said, had “distressed millions, involved thousands in ruin, and plunged numberless families in inextricable woe.” Calling the enemy “wantonly wicked and cruel,” he rallied the army behind him and marched them southward to Virginia, where they joined a French army under General Rochambeau and encircled British forces at Yorktown. With a French fleet lurking offshore to block British escape by sea, the allied army, about 9,000 Americans and 7,800 Frenchmen, laid siege to the British fortifications. After an eight-day storm of shells had reduced Yorktown to rubble, the allied troops penetrated the outer British works. Two days later, on October 17, 1781, British commander Lord Charles Cornwallis sent a message to Washington under a flag of truce: “Sir,—I propose a cessation of hostilities.” And two days after that nearly 8,000 humiliated British soldiers laid down their arms as “prisoners of Congress.”3

Although victory at Yorktown ended major fighting in America and forced British diplomats to the negotiating table, the peace talks dragged on for more than a year. Unable to disband until the British signed articles of peace, thousands of American troops remained in encampments, at the ready to resume fighting, but overwhelmed by boredom as diplomats in Paris tried working out acceptable peace arrangements.

Without money for adequate food or clothing, let alone amusement, they were as much “prisoners of Congress” as the British troops who had surrendered at Yorktown. When Congress failed to respond to an army ultimatum for overdue pay and adequate pensions, the troops resumed their mutiny—this time with the support of outraged officers, including General Horatio Gates, the celebrated commander at the Battle of Saratoga.

In Newburgh, New York, where most of Washington’s Continental Army lay encamped, an unsigned leaflet appealed to officers to take up arms and lead the troops against Congress if and when Britain signed a peace agreement ending the war. If, on the other hand, Britain resumed fighting, the leaflet urged officers to abandon their posts and “set up a new state in the wilderness,” thus leaving Congress and the coastal states defenseless.

“My God,” Washington shuddered at what he saw as a call to treason. He ordered officers to assemble immediately, and, in a rare appearance by any commander in chief, he addressed them personally. After reading the letter aloud, he acknowledged the hardships officers and troops had faced, but called the contents of the letter “something so shocking that humanity revolts at the idea.” He reminded officers that “I have never left your side one moment” and then pledged his name and honor that “you may command my services . . . in the attainment of complete justice for all your toils and dangers.”

Washington knew he commanded the love and respect of his troops. He had, after all, served without pay and remained with them in camp through the most severe winters. Most officers in the world’s armies routinely left their men in winter quarters and returned to the comforts of their own homes or suitably comfortable rented quarters. On March 15, 1783, he pleaded with them “to express your utmost horror and detestation of the man . . . who wickedly attempts to open the flood gates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood.”4

Washington paused, his eyes evidently faltering. He laid his paper down and fumbled in his pocket for a pair of glasses that evoked murmurs of surprise from his men. They had never seen him use an aid of any sort.

“Gentlemen,” Washington’s voice quavered. “You will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray, but almost blind, in the service of my country.”5 All remembered the great warrior who had soared unscathed through storms of British shells on winged steed and inspired them to impossible acts of valor. In their minds, they could still hear his commands above the fray at Monmouth in June of ’78: “Stand fast, my boys! Stand fast!” Shifting his horse to the right, the left, and rearing back, he charged at the British Redcoats—a vengeful titan risen from some netherworld.

“General Washington was never greater in battle,” the French Major General Lafayette marveled as he rode back from battle. “His stately appearance on horseback, his calm, dignified courage . . . secured the victory.”6

Almost five years had passed since Monmouth; the perils and privations of war had aged Washington noticeably as he stood before his officers in Newburgh. With his health apparently failing, a sadness crept into his voice, which captured their hearts. His address, said one officer, “with the mode and manner of delivering it, drew tears from [many] of the officers.”7 “He spoke,” said another, “and the tide of patriotism rolled again in its wonted course.” The mutiny ended with a unanimous resolution of confidence in Congress and an appeal to Washington that he represent the interests of all army officers in peace as he had in war.8

There was, however, little that Washington or Congress could do to ease the army’s plight. In June 1783, a month after Congress ratified the provisional treaty of peace with Britain, soldiers in and around Philadelphia mutinied and, bayonets fixed, they marched to the doors of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. Unable to address the soldiers’ demands, Congress fled to Princeton, New Jersey.

Washington fulfilled his promise to his officers with a blistering condemnation of Congress and the states for mismanaging the nation’s finances during the war. In what was called “Washington’s Legacy,” he issued a 4,000-word “Circular to the States” demanding full payment of all debts to soldiers and officers, pensions equal to five years’ pay for officers, and lifelong pensions for those “who have shed their blood or lost their limbs in the service of their country. . . .

“Nothing,” he declared, “but a punctual payment of their annual allowance can rescue them from the most complicated misery . . . without a shelter, without a friend, and without the means of obtaining any of the necessaries or comforts of life; compelled to beg their daily bread from door to door.” Warning that “the eyes of the whole world” were watching the United States, he also called on Congress to repay foreign and domestic creditors, declaring,

This is the moment to establish or ruin our national character forever. This is the favorable moment to give such a tone to our Federal Government as will enable it to answer the ends of its institution or this may be the ill-fated moment for relaxing the powers of the Union, annihilating the cement of the Confederation, and exposing us to become the sport of European politics, which may play one state against another . . . to serve their own interested purposes.

Washington went on to demand that Congress and the states reform the Confederation, with the states ceding “a larger proportion of power to Congress” and creating “an indissoluble union of the states under one federal head.” Failure to do so, he predicted, would “very rapidly tend to anarchy and confusion.

It is indispensable . . . that there should be lodged somewhere a Supreme Power to regulate and govern the general concerns of the confederated republic, without which the Union cannot be of long duration. . . . There must be a faithful and pointed compliance on the part of every state with the demands of Congress, or the most fatal consequences will ensue. Whatever measures have a tendency to dissolve the Union, or contribute to violate or lessen the Sovereign Authority, ought to be considered as hostile to the liberty and independency of America, and the authors of them treated accordingly.9

As commander in chief of the Continental Army, Washington had near-dictatorial powers at the end of the Revolution. He could have seized control of government—with the support of many in Congress and most of the military. He chose instead to retire and trust in America’s elected leaders to reform the government of the Confederation. He himself had tired of command and of governing others and longed to return home to his farm and family. Indeed he had promised his wife, Martha, he would be home for Christmas dinner—their first at home in nine years. Washington had remained with his troops during the winter cessation of hostilities since the first year of the war, and Martha—like the wives and sweethearts of the lowest-ranking soldiers—had dutifully appeared at winter encampments to bring a measure of comfort to her husband during the cold, lonely days of nonengagement—at Valley Forge, Morristown, and other ice-bound northern camps.

“I never in my life knew a woman so busy from early morning until late at night as was Lady Washington, providing comforts for the sick soldiers,” one camp follower wrote. “Every day, excepting Sunday . . . knitting socks, patching garments and making shirts for the poor soldiers. . . . Every fair day she might be seen, with basket in hand, and with a single attendant, going among the . . . most needy sufferers, and giving all the comforts to them in her power.”10

General George Washington, commander of the Continental Army. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

At noon on December 23, 1783, Washington strode into the Maryland State House in Annapolis to surrender his commission as commander in chief to Congress before a gallery packed with former officers, public servants, relatives, and friends. Mutinous soldiers had chased Congress form Philadelphia, and it had found a temporary refuge in Annapolis.

“Sir,” intoned President Thomas Mifflin, a prominent Philadelphia merchant who had been a major general in the war, “the United States in Congress assembled are prepared to receive your communications.”

“Mr. President,” Washington replied, “the great events on which my resignation depended having at length taken place; I have now the honor of offering my sincere Congratulations to Congress and of presenting myself before them to surrender into their hands the trust committed to me, and to claim the indulgence of retiring from the service of my country.” As he recalled the “services and distinguished merits” of his officers and “the Gentlemen who have been attached to my person during the War,” he choked with emotion and paused. Spectators held back their tears.

Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theater of action; and bidding an affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my commission, and take my leave of all employments of public life.11

Washington then “drew his commission from his bosom and handed it to the president.” After Mifflin had replied, “the general bowed again to Congress . . . and retired. After a little pause . . . Congress adjourned. The general . . . bid every member farewell and rode off from the door, intent upon eating Christmas dinner at home.”12

A few days later, Washington wrote to his friend Lafayette: “At last, my dear Marquis, I am become a private citizen on the banks of the Potomac and under the shadow of my own vine and fig tree, free from the bustle of camp and the busy scenes of public life. I am solacing myself with those tranquil enjoyments of which the soldier who is ever in pursuit of fame . . . can have very little conception. . . . Envious of none . . . I will move gently down the stream of life until I sleep with my fathers.”13

As passionate as he was in his devotion to his family and farm, however, Washington’s fear and abhorrence of social disorder would not let him ignore the turmoil and chaos engulfing the nation beyond the idyllic fields and forests of Mount Vernon. Neither Congress nor the states had been able or willing to respond to his “Circular to the States,” and their failure became evident in the growing national unrest.

By emasculating Congress, the Articles of Confederation not only left the national government without funds, they all but bankrupted the nation by crippling foreign trade and the economy. Foreign nations that tried negotiating trade agreements with the “united” states found any agreement with Congress meaningless without agreements from each of the individual states through whose territory the goods would have to travel. Rather than negotiate so many separate agreements, overseas merchants simply stopped trading with the United States. America’s foreign trade plunged 25 percent, while farm income, which depended on exports, dropped 20 percent.


  • Mr. President explores both the birth of our nation's government and Washington's continual influence over the role of the president in domestic and foreign affairs, offering some truly enlightening insight into the earliest days of the U.S. government…Washington's political savvy and foresight have never seemed more impressive than they do in Unger's hands…As eye-opening as it is fascinating.”

    InfoDad.com, 11/14/13

    “Unger's book is essentially a tracing of the roots of what we now call the ‘imperial presidency,' which most people believe to be a purely modern phenomenon—attributed by many to Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example. But Unger convincingly argues that this is not so: the seizing and exercise of powers not given to the president by the Constitution dates back all the way to the nation's first chief executive… It is genuinely fascinating to follow Unger's tracing of so many supposedly modern ‘presidential excesses' to the nation's first president: this book really does shine a new light on social and political conflicts that continue to this day.”

    The Heartland Institute (Somewhat Reasonable blog), 11/2/13

    “[An] excellent book.”

    Roanoke Times, 12/1/13
  • Publishers Weekly, 9/16/13

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

    Washington Times, 11/13/13

    “[A] thoroughly researched and delightfully written book…Adds a much-needed new dimension to the Washington portrait…A real thriller of a tale that Mr. Unger has told with skill and authority.”

    New York Journal of Books, 10/29/13

    “With ‘Mr. President' Harlow Giles Unger gives our precious American history the backbone it deserves and reveals more of Washington the man than Washington the demigod…Mr. Unger has the ability to not let his scholarship weigh down his story. History can be yawn inducing, but Mr. Unger puts his arm around us as if he is a travel companion telling a story—our story—with the pacing of a solid novel…Mr. Unger has objectively stripped away the mythological haze surrounding one of our most important founding fathers.”

    San Francisco Book Review/Sacramento Book Review, 11/11/13

On Sale
Oct 29, 2013
Page Count
288 pages
Da Capo Press

Harlow Giles Unger

About the Author

Acclaimed historian Harlow Giles Unger is a former Distinguished Visiting Fellow at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. He is the author of twenty-six previous books, including twelve biographies of America’s Founding Fathers and three histories of the early Republic. He lives in New York City.

Learn more about this author