George Washington: A Man of Action (A Word Portrait)

By John P. Kaminski

Hardcover: $22.95

ISBN: 9780870208263

240 pages, 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 E-book also available.


Orders for Trade, Library or Wholesale >>

John P. Kaminski, founder of The Center for the Study of the American Constitution at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, paints an intimate word portrait of the Father of America, George Washington, in this collection of quotations by and about the man who Henry 'Lighthorse' Lee of Virginia eulogized as: "First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen."

Perhaps no other person could ever achieve the preeminent position in American history and culture occupied by George Washington. Born in 1732, Washington's life-long commitment to self-improvement and discipline helped him become a legend in his own lifetime. Whether as a statesman, military man, or America's first president, Washington created a legacy that has scarcely diminished in over two centuries. Yet the passage of time and the superlatives reserved for Washington have knit together and made it difficult to find the real man. During his decades of research on the U.S. Constitution and America's founding figures, historian and editor Kaminski has amassed an extraordinary body of quotations that brings us closer to the essence of this great leader.

This book is the second in Kaminski's Word Portraits Series for the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. His first portrait, Alexander Hamilton: From Obscurity to Greatness is also available. Kaminski is also the author of the Founders Series of chapbooks amd the director and co-editor of the 28-volume Society Press series, The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution.

For a media review copy, to interview the author or for more information, contact the Society Press marketing office at

John P. Kaminski is the founder and director of The Center for the Study of the American Constitution in the History Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is director and co-editor of The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution series, of which twenty-eight volumes have been published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. A leading scholar on U.S. Constitutional history, Kaminski has published widely on a variety of topics in the American Foundation Era, including several chapbooks in the Founders Series.

Why did you decide to gather quotes about George Washington, and other founders of America?
I’ve always been interested in the Revolutionary/Constitutional period of American history. Knowing how important their activities were to themselves, their country, and the world, many of that generation preserved their sometimes voluminous correspondence. I first started collecting interesting quotations from Thomas Jefferson’s writings. Then, I starting collecting quotations from a number of Founders’ papers as a way of compiling a database about their lives that I could use for research in writing and making presentations. Then, when compiling a database of subjects from the John Adams papers, I realized that he was regularly writing about himself and others. That’s when I starting compiling what I called “The Founders on the Founders.” These quotations really bring alive who these people were as they described themselves and as others described them.

Was there one quote in particular that sheds new light on a side or trait of George Washington maybe we don’t know as well? (or perhaps a quote that is a particular favorite) Why?
There are many quotations that present descriptions of Washington that are not well known. The story of how Washington stifled a potential military coup at Newburgh, N.Y., in March 1783 is well known, but Lafayette’s response to that is not so well known. Lafayette wrote from France that Washington’s activities made Lafayette proud of him. Other accounts of the personal side of Washington stand out—Elkanah Watson’s account of Washington bringing him a bowl of tea to soothe Watson’s nighttime cough or Abigail Adams’s account of a dinner at which President Washington gave her the sugar plums from a cake for her four-year-old grandson. These account offer personal insights into the “good” side of a “great and good man.” This can also be said for the 110 rules of civility that Washington copied as a young teenager and that he tried to live by throughout his life.
How can this book serve as a guide to American history?
The book offers a great deal into Washington’s attitude on a wide range of topics. These topics often concerned the most important issues of the day dealing with government, the military, politics, economics, and issues of character. Many other Americans—political leaders and ordinary folks—wrestled with these same issues.

George Washington is the ultimate national figure, but this book was published in Wisconsin – Why? And, what about Washington is relevant to Wisconsinites today?
The Wisconsin Historical Society has collected an amazing amount of primary source material in the form of manuscript documents, maps, newspapers, pamphlets. In addition to the original documents, the Society has acquired a voluminous collection of primary documents in various microform collections. All of this data has contributed to the research of many scholars, including those at the Center for the Study of the American Constitution. In 1976, the Society Press started publishing "The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution," which now includes twenty-eight volumes [edited by Kaminski]. The Society also distributes at least six other volumes I've written. The “Word Portraits of America’s Founders” series continues this cooperative effort.
As Revolutionary War General and First President, George Washington is probably the most beloved and most well-known American founder. What MORE can we learn about America’s “Founding Father” from reading this book?
The book teaches us what Washington felt about a myriad of subjects and other individuals, and what Washington and his contemporaries thought about him personally. Washington’s attitude about these is not always easy to discovery from biographies and more general histories of the time.
Writing a book is a deeply personal experience. How has researching and editing “George Washington,” and the other books in the new “Word Portraits” series been a personal experience for you?
Delving into the personal and public papers of the Founding generation always illustrates the dedication that these individuals had in serving their country and fulfilling the duty they believed they had. Many individuals sacrificed a great deal to achieve American independence and to have America function as an example to the rest of the world that human beings could govern themselves. They had a dream for their country, and only through their dedicated service was that dream accomplished. The effort, however, didn’t stop with them; it’s an ongoing process.

To celebrate George Washington's birthday and the launch of our book "George Washington: A Man of Action," in February 2017, the Wisconsin Historical Society staff shared some of their favorite Washington quotes from the book in this series of short videos - watch it here!

Find some additional quotes from the book below:


There is something charming to me in the conduct of Washington. A gentleman of one of the first fortunes upon the continent, leaving his delicious retirement, his family and friends, sacrificing his ease, and hazarding all in the cause of his country!
-- John Adams to Elbridge Gerry, Philadelphia, 18 June 1775

. . . [The President] errs as other men do, but errs with integrity.
-- Thomas Jefferson to William Branch Giles, Monticello, 31 December 1795

Our general is a man truly made for this revolution, which could not succeed without him. I am closer to him than anyone else, and I find him worthy of his country’s veneration. … I admire him more each day for the beauty of his character and his spirit.
-- Marquis de Lafayette to the Duc d’Ayen, In Camp at Gulph, Pa., 16 December 1777

First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.
-- Henry Knox,


I never wish to promise more than I have a moral certainty of performing.
-- to the Marquis de Lafayette, Preakness, N.J., 16 July 1780

I was summoned by my country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love.
-- in his First Inaugural Address, New York, 30 April 1789

I have no wish superior to that of promoting the happiness and welfare of this country.
-- to Henry Lee, Philadelphia, 21 July 1793

My primary objects, and to which I have steadily adhered, have been to preserve the country in peace if I can, and to be prepared for war if I cannot. To effect the first upon terms consistent with the respect which is due to ourselves—and with honor, justice & good faith to all the world.
-- to Gouverneur Morris, Mount Vernon, 25 June 1794

A knowledge of books is the basis upon which other knowledge is to be built.
-- to Jonathan Boucher, Mount Vernon, 9 July 1771

It is not easy for a man to throw the first stone for fear of having it returned to him.
 -- to William Pearce, Philadelphia, 18 December 1793

A good moral character is the first essential in a man.
--to George Steptoe Washington, Philadelphia, 5 December 1790

To contract new Debts, is not the way to pay old ones.
--to James Welch, Mount Vernon, 7 April 1799

Every Citizen who enjoys the protection of a free Government, owes not only a proportion of his property, but even of his personal services to the defense of it.
-- from Sentiments on a Peace Establishment, Newburgh, N.Y., 2 May 1783

The Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
-- to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport,  R.I., 18 August 1790