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George Washington and American Constitutionalism

Glenn A. Phelps

x, 238 pages, 6 x 9
American Political Thought
Paper ISBN 978-0-7006-0683-2, $14.95

Book Cover ImageGeorge Washington is generally viewed as a demigod for what he was and did, not what he thought. That he played a key role in securing the adoption of the Constitution is well known, but few credit him with a political philosophy that actively shaped the constitutional tradition. In this revisionist study, Glenn Phelps argues that Washington's political thought did influence the principles informing the federal government then and now. Phelps examines Washington's political ideas not as they were perceived by his contemporaries but in his own words, that is, he shows what Washington believed, not what others thought he believed.

Phelps shows that Washington's political values remained consistent over time, regardless of who his counselors or "ghost writers" were. Using Washington's letters to friends and family--written free from the constraints of public politics--Phelps reveals a man committed to a fully developed plan for a constitutional republic. He demonstrates that the first president developed--long before Madison, Hamilton, and other nationalists--a coherent and consistent view of a republican government on a continental scale, a view grounded in classically conservative republicanism and continentally minded commercialism. That Washington was only partially successful in building the constitutional system that he intended does not undercut his theoretical contribution, Phelps contends. Even his failures affected the way our constitutional tradition developed.

"Indispensable to understanding Washington and the history and government he helped make."--Richard B. Bernstein in Constitution

"Helps us to see how Washington became the greatest political leader the United States has produced and, arguably, the greatest leader in the entire experience of constitutional democracy. Phelps's special contribution is in showing the strength and coherence of Washington's political philosophy."--Times Literary Supplement

"This book clarifies for the present generation what Washington's contemporaries knew very well-that throughout his life, and especially during his ten years of extraordinary political leadership, he was an earnest, consistent, and even profound republican constitutionalist, in theory as well as in practice."--Ralph Ketcham, author of Framed for Posterity: The Enduring Philosophy of the Constitution

"This is a book we have long and truly needed. Phelps makes the case for Washington's decisive importance to the development of American constitutional republicanism."--Lance Banning, author of The Jeffersonian Persuasion: Evolution of a Party Ideology

"A strong argument for Washington's primary role in the formation and early development of the Constitution."--William and Mary Quarterly

"A splendid, well-written reexamination of George Washington as a constitutional thinker as well as a practitioner."--Thomas E. Cronin, editor of Inventing the American Presidency

GLENN A. PHELPS is professor of political science at Northern Arizona University and coauthor (with Robert Poirier) of Contemporary Debates on Civil Liberties: Enduring Constitutional Questions.

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