Cover image for Washington's revolution : the making of America's first leader
Washington's revolution : the making of America's first leader
Middlekauff, Robert, author.
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.
Physical Description:
xvi, 358 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm
Presents a portrait of the formative years that shaped the first American President and offers detailed psychological insights into his beliefs, passions and patriotism.
Virginian. The young Washington's world ; Young Washington ; The making of a soldier ; From planter to patriot -- American. Boston ; New York ; The Philadelphia Campaign ; Valley Forge -- Citizen of the world. Citizen of the world ; Weary but resolute ; Mutiny and rallying the French ; Yorktown ; The end of the war ; Return to Virginia.
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E312.25 .M54 2015 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
E312.25 .M54 2015 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
E312.25 .M54 2015 Adult Non-Fiction New Materials
E312.25 .M54 2015 Adult Non-Fiction Biography

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A vivid, insightful, essential new account of the formative years that shaped a callow George Washington into an extraordinary leader, from the Bancroft Prize winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist Robert Middlekauff.

George Washington was famously unknowable, a man of deep passions hidden behind a facade of rigid self-control. Yet before he was a great general and president, Washington was a young man prone to peevishness and a volcanic temper. His greatness as a leader evolved over time, the product of experience and maturity but also a willed effort to restrain his wilder impulses.

Focusing on Washington's early years, Robert Middlekauff penetrates his mystique, revealing his all-too-human fears, values, and passions. Rich in psychological detail regarding Washington's temperament, idiosyncrasies, and experiences, this book shows a self-conscious Washington who grew in confidence and experience as a young soldier, businessman, and Virginia gentleman, and who was transformed into a patriot by the revolutionary ferment of the 1760s and '70s. Taking command of an army in constant dire need--of adequate food, weapons, and, at times, even clothing and shoes--Washington displayed incredible persistence and resourcefulness, growing into a leader who both understood and defined the crucial role of the army in the formation of a new American society.

Middlekauff makes clear that Washington was at the heart of not just the revolution's course and outcome but also the success of the nation it produced. This is an indispensable book for truly understanding one of America's great figures.

Author Notes

ROBERT MIDDLEKAUFF is Preston Hotchkis Professor of American History, Emeritus, at the University of California, Berkeley. He has been the director of the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens (1983-1988); and Harold Vyvyan Harmsworth Visiting Professor of American History at the University of Oxford. His books include The Mathers: Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals, 1596-1728 , which won the Bancroft Prize; The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 , which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and Benjamin Franklin and His Enemies .

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Focusing on George Washington's significant impact on the course and outcome of the Revolution rather than on his role as America's first president, Middlekauff details the life and times of both the man and the soldier. Beginning with his formative years, the author charts the course of his remarkable yet thoughtfully measured transformation from provincial Virginian to nationalist leader. Comparing the evolution of Washington the man to the fledgling nation, the author is able to capture the collective mind-set of a people perched on the precipice of a monumental historical shift. Wrapping up his study at the conclusion of the war, the author portrays Washington, like the nation he represented and fought for, as a man with an entirely new conception of what freedom meant in a free nation. Although biographies of GW abound, Middlekauff's psychological and philosophical approach adds some fresh new details to a time-honored portrait.--Flanagan, Margaret Copyright 2015 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

Middlekauff (Benjamin Franklin and His Enemies), an acclaimed historian of early America, shows how, from the 1760s to 1783, Washington went from being a "Virginia provincial" to a national leader, one who "held together the political structures that constituted the United States" by integrating state militias. He devotes about one quarter of his book to the French and Indian War, and three quarters to the Revolutionary War. During the latter, Washington complained repeatedly to the Continental Congress of a shortage of supplies and lost more battles than he won. But he kept the colonies in the war through daring triumphs at the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, responded with equanimity to criticism when campaigns went badly, and showed great "strategic sense" in choosing to fight a war of attrition. Middlekauff praises Washington's commitment to civilian supremacy in directing military policy and demonstrates how Washington came to be seen as "a creature apart... a chosen instrument of providence." Though he glosses over some noteworthy events, Middlekauff's clearly written study supports the view of Washington as a military leader who was as adept at working with ordinary soldiers as he was with querulous political leaders, revealing how much of Washington the legend was reflected in the real man. (Feb.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Library Journal Review

Starred Review. Since the inception of the Papers of George Washington Project in 1968, a vast array of new material about America's first president has come to light. A consequence of the project has been the publication of many topical studies about Washington, such as The Ascent of George Washington by John Ferling and "Mr. President" by Harlow G. Unger. Here Middlekauff (emeritus, history, Univ. of California, Berkeley; The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789) explores the future president's evolution as a leader from his time as a young Virginian through his successful military leadership of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Washington grew from holding a provincial world view to having a mixed, complex understanding of his world. By the end of the revolution, he was well positioned to assume preeminent political leadership of a new nation, first as president of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 through 1788 and then as the first U.S. president. Between 1732 and 1784, he transitioned from a Virginian to an American to a world citizen. He became a nationalist without discarding the ethos of his native land. VERDICT Focused and succinctly written, this biography will be of interest to readers and scholarsof Washington and of the American Revolution.-Glen Edward Taul, Campbellsville Univ. Libs., KY (c) Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

This derivative reassessment of George Washington and the American Revolution starts with Washington's youth and the French and Indian War and ends in 1783. There are some engaging passages, such as on slavery and the Arnold-André Affair. However, the book is mainly a selective condensation of Christopher Ward's The War of the Revolution (1952) and the Freeman and Flexner biographies, with referencing of the published Washington papers. Important battles are too briefly mentioned and some not at all. One wishes that Middlekauf (emer., Berkeley) had probed into Washington's character as revealed, for example, in his Virginia political life and relationships with military personnel. The author refrains from any sharp criticism of his subject and avoids research in the manuscript or published papers of military leaders such as Greene, Knox, and Lafayette (although, granted, much of this material is in the Washington papers). Middlekauf completely ignores published military biographies and seems to be of the opinion that rambling commentary, much without factual support, makes up for excluding discussion of substantial material. Summing Up: Optional. General readers and public libraries only. --Harry M. Ward, emeritus, University of Richmond



Washington had demonstrated throughout the war his commitment to civilian supremacy in the American republic. His convictions about the relationship of the army to Congress remained firm and clear, never wavering in the face of appeals that he take matters into his own hands and, in effect, exercise the powers of a king or dictator. Such action on his part, or the army's, would be giving up the meaning of the Revolution, a surrender he would not accede to, as he explained to his officers at Newburgh. He made his belief in civilian control even clearer virtually every day, in the way he dealt with Congress. There was no question of yielding power to them--he had never claimed such power; he was the servant of the American people and of Congress, nothing less and nothing more. All the time that he served as commander of the Continental Army, he was in fact also the leader of the Revolution. His unspoken and undefined responsibilities in this role transcended those of his assignment as commander in chief, and he became, as the war developed, a symbol of the freedom the young republic embodied. He was the political leader of the Revolution, though he drafted no legislation and signed no laws. But if he failed, it was widely understood, the Revolution failed. For Washington, more than any American leader in or out of Congress, by his actions and example, held together the political structure that constituted the United States. Several of his officers came to proclaim this fact through their insistence that the army was the Revolution and Washington its leader. It was the institution--despite its failures and, at times, its weakness--that held together, demonstrating to the enemy that American independence possessed a reality that could not be crushed. Had Washington not persevered in the service of the cause he called "glorious," the Revolution would have given way to slow collapse. None of the Americans around him in the army, the Congress, or the states commanded the moral force he embodied. Success in maintaining the American effort would not have been achieved without him. He succeeded in large part because he understood that the Revolution represented a rare opportunity--something quite new, in fact--to lead a people in defense of principles long honored in conceptions of liberty, stifled or suppressed elsewhere in the world. He did not fully sense the possibilities, or the range, of political liberty when the war began in 1775; nor did anyone else in or out of Congress. The war itself called out his best efforts and stiffened his resolve to honor the ideals proclaimed in the great state papers issued in the early years of resistance, culminating in the Declaration of Independence. In assessing his performance in conventional military terms--his thought on strategy, his tactical capabilities and action, and his administrative record throughout the war--the basic comparison has to be with his British enemy. Washington's strategic sense proved to be of a very high order. He saw early on that, because of the disparity in military strength, the wisest course for his army lay in fighting a war of attrition. Such a war would not yield outright military defeat of the British, but, pursued with care, it held promise of wearing them out until they were willing to accept American independence. If the likelihood of defeating the British army on the battlefield was slim, or nonexistent, the Americans still had to fight--attrition did not mean avoidance of the enemy. Washington knew much about the British army: It was not large, but its level of competence had been high for many years. Its leaders in the 1770s and after were not brilliant, but Gage, the Howe brothers, Clinton, and Cornwallis were able professionals. British regiments were better than competent; their men and field-grade officers were skillful. Perhaps the greatest advantage the British had was their navy. Washington assumed from the beginning of the war that naval power--not just the weight of shipboard guns, but the capacity for moving and supplying troops--was of great importance. He faced a European country of surpassing naval experience and power. In contrast to the British military, the Americans had to summon an army from nothing, and putting it together had to be done repeatedly. Had knowledge existed of how to create an army from nothing, the American task still would have been daunting, for the will to give up old allegiances to provinces and to adopt fresh ways of dealing with the world as it existed was not strong. Washington supplied much that was missing in political will and in insight. But the underlying circumstances of the new nation, divided and uncertain of how to proceed, and fearful of a standing or professional army, dogged his action through- out the entire war. He, with the unreliable assistance of the states, created an army, only to see it dissolve, many times. He responded by pulling it together again and again, including not just its regiments of infantry but its logistical services as well. He began as commander with an army outside Boston that was little more than a collection of town and county militias. There were virtually no structure, procedures, regulations, or army-wide logistical and other organizations in support. A body of officers experienced in military organization and in combat was also lacking. The creation of an army while conducting military operations had few precedents and had to be done during a siege and, later, under the most pressing kinds of fighting. Despite the persistence of the underlying circumstances of a weak central authority, he fought his way through using what was available to hold off superior forces in almost every battle. Only at Yorktown did he go into battle with a favorable hand. When his army's prospects were at their bleakest, as in December 1776, he seized control at Trenton and Princeton--not because his army was stronger, but because he had imagination and daring. He also demonstrated that he knew how to run a battle and in the process to inspire an army and a nation. His and his army's fortunes had desperate moments after these brilliant attacks, but they sustained Washington's vision and his hold on the Revolution. Whatever the course of the military conflict, he insisted on a policy of attrition, and his strategy under all sorts of circumstances remained steady. That the American conception of civil supremacy remained firm even when the army seemed the only reliable institution in the war-- and its commander the center of authority--owed more to Washing- ton, a general, than to anything else. War, he knew, could dissolve the claims of the civilian world to ultimate authority. Such claims in America were hardly more than a wish in the dark days of the war. Washington made the claims a reality. His thought indeed amounted to a form of constitutionalism. Here, on this matter of the people and the army, he insisted that the people's voice should be loudest. Washington's imagination--his conception of what freedom meant in a free nation--is sometimes overlooked in the certitude of his physical bravery. He was a general, after all; he fought and he overcame enormous obstacles. But he also possessed a grand imagination, a vision of his new country. That vision, often a daring instrument, set him apart and made him the great leader of the Revolution. Excerpted from Washington's Revolution by Robert Middlekauff. Copyright © 2015 by Robert Middlekauff. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpted from Washington's Revolution: The Making of America's First Leader by Robert Middlekauff All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.