George Washington The American Presidents Series: The 1st President, 1789-1797

The American Presidents

James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., General Editor

Times Books




208 Pages



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Wealthy Virginia planter, revolutionary general, and founding president, George Washington was the most illustrious public man of his time, a man whose image today still reflects his own careful shaping of his persona.

As president, Washington built almost unimpeded power into the executive branch, not only occupying the office but virtually conquering it. And yet his was by no means a one-man presidency. James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn demonstrate that Washington built a collective leadership never to be surpassed in American history. He succeeded brilliantly in creating a strong sense of national unity while failing markedly in trying to foster political unity, believing that it was possible to dissolve political differences and banish opposition. His moral legacy would also be mixed, for he feared that discussions of slavery would threaten the survival of the young republic. But in the end the presidency itself would be his ultimate achievement; it would undergird every future president who would seek to offer strong and determined leadership.

As a public figure Washington could be difficult to decipher. At key moments in his life he seemed to want to shun the spotlight, disquieted by the responsibilities of power. He dreaded his inauguration, announcing that he felt like "a culprit going to the place of his execution." And yet he always happened to be in the right place at the right time. Burns and Dunn probe behind his virtuoso performance of self-effacement and discover a supremely ambitious man determined to be at the center of events.

In this thoughtful and incisive biography, Burns and Dunn dissect the strengths and weaknesses of Washington's presidential leadership, from his lasting foreign and economic policies to his polarizing denunciation of political parties and his public silence about slavery. The result is a surprising portrait of the multidimensional man behind the myth he so assiduously crafted.


Praise for George Washington

"The George Washington we discovered was a hot-tempered man of courage and intellect who took on the astonishingly daring and complex task of leading an infant nation in a war for independence against the mightiest power in the world. But his presidency—his shaping of that office and his consolidation of executive power—was his ultimate achievement, for it would empower every future president who would seek to offer strong and determined leadership."—James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn on George Washington

"James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn offer a thoughtful double portrait of our most celebrated Founding Father."—The New York Times Book Review

"Burns and Dunn capably chart the course of Washington's presidency, examining what they consider to be his successes (including the reshaping of the constitutional balance of powers) and failures (among them the polarization wrought by the Jay Treaty, which 'left much that was precious to Washington—national unity, the common good, his own reputation—in tatters'). In the end, they fault him only gently for occasional missteps in office, notably his failure to act to hasten the end of slavery. A great president, then, if with a few blemishes. Good reading for students of the office and the time."—Kirkus Reviews

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  • James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., General Editor

  • James MacGregor Burns is the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Williams College and a senior scholar at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. He is the author of numerous books, including Transforming Leadership, Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom. Burns lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

    Susan Dunn is Professor of Humanities at Williams College. She is the author of many books, including Sister Revolutions and The Three Roosevelts (with James MacGregor Burns). Dunn also lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

    Series editor Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. is arguably the preeminent political historian of our time. For more than half a century, he has been a cornerstone figure in the intellectual life of the nation and a fixture on the political scene. He served as special assistant to John F. Kennedy; won two Pulitzer Prizes for The Age of Jackson (1946) and A Thousand Days (1966); and in 1998 received the National Humanities Medal. He published the first volume of his autobiography, A Life in the Twentieth Century, in 2000.