George Washington's Final Battle

The Epic Struggle to Build a Capital City and a Nation

Robert P. Watson

"[T]his is an informative narrative of the contested founding of the nation’s capital for both general readers and academics."
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George Washington is remembered for leading the Continental Army to victory, presiding over the Constitution, and forging a new nation, but few know the story of his involvement in the establishment of a capital city and how it nearly tore the United States apart.

In George Washington’s Final Battle, Robert P. Watson brings this tale to life, telling how the country's first president tirelessly advocated for a capital on the shores of the Potomac. Washington envisioned and had a direct role in planning many aspects of the city that would house the young republic. In doing so, he created a landmark that gave the fledgling democracy credibility, united a fractious country, and created a sense of American identity.

Although Washington died just months before the federal government's official relocation, his vision and influence live on in the city that bears his name.

This little-known story of founding intrigue throws George Washington’s political acumen into sharp relief and provides a historical lesson in leadership and consensus-building that remains relevant today. This book will fascinate anyone interested in the founding period, the American presidency, and the history of Washington, DC.

Table of Contents




Introduction: The “Other” Founding Debates


1. Surveying a Future

2. Western Adventures

3. The Dispensations of Providence

4. Potomac Fever

5. Cincinnatus


6. Swords in their Hands

7. Mutiny!

8. The Day the War Ended

9. A Singular Destiny

10. Fixing the Seat of Government

11. Political Architecture


12. Convention

13. Ten Miles Square

14. An Inauguration

15. New York City

16. The Great Debate

17. The (Second) Most Famous Dinner in History


18. The Grand Compromise

19. Philadelphia

20. The Residence Act of 1790

21. The City of Washington

22. Financing the Capital


23. The Architect

24. Intrigues and Injuries

25. A Design Contest

26. Building the President’s House

27. A House Divided


28. Washington (Never) Slept Here

29. A Pedestal Waiting for a Monument

30. Temple of Liberty

31. The Father of His Country

32. 'Tis Well

Epilogue: The Building Is in a State to Be Habitable

Appendix A. Chronological List of Temporary Capitals

Appendix B. List of Possible Locations for the Capital


"A fine and full account of the much-contested founding of Washington, DC. Watson demonstrates clearly and convincingly why the first president deserved to have the nation's capital bear his name."—Gordon S. Wood, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, National Humanities Medal recipient, and Alva O. Way University Professor, Brown University

"In clear prose, both accessible and insightful, Watson portrays George Washington as a great yet flawed hero, the leader whose character and vision helped to win the Revolutionary War and initiate the building of a new city from which the new nation could be governed. Washington understood that this country needed a national identity, and that a new capital city was an essential building block for such an identity. Watson considers this phase of Washington's career his 'final battle' and amply demonstrates his characterization of it as an 'epic struggle'."—David Haberstich, curator and archivist, Smithsonian National Museum of American History

"Watson brings to life the very human father of our country. He takes George Washington down from his pedestal and invites us to judge his triumphs and setbacks from the earthen battlefields of the American frontier to the political salons of our nascent republic. Washington combines his lifetime love for the Potomac with his determination to build a glorious capital along its shores against the determined opposition of many of his contemporaries. This astute politician gives a little here and takes a little more there to earn the victory that many of us now take for granted, but was far from inevitable."—Alan S. Frumin, former parliamentarian of the United States Senate

"Unbeknownst to the millions of tourists who visit our nation's capital is the story of the contentious struggle to build a permanent seat of government, which Robert Watson so eloquently depicts in George Washington's Final Battle. Watson regales readers with an extraordinarily detailed account of the debates that overshadowed all the other issues the fledgling nation faced as it came to realize Washington's passion for creating a 'great city,' one which would unify the country and inspire all Americans. This is a must read for those interested in the founding era!"—Richard M. Yon, United States Military Academy at West Point

"In 1791, the commissioners of the Federal District named the nascent capital city in honor of President George Washington, but as historian Robert Watson demonstrates, he went on to earn that honor during the course of his presidency. Washington's vision for a national capital was central to its planning, design, and location, but it was his administrative skills, political gravitas, and attention to detail that brought this vision to life. Watson masterfully weaves together how Washington's many life experiences shaped his ideas on self-government, nationhood, and the power of perception; truly, Washington's trials and tribulations prepared him for one of his most overlooked accomplishments—the building of the nation's capital."—Matthew Costello , PhD, assistant director of the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History at the White House Historical Association

"Washington’s final battle turned out to be unexpectedly difficult, and Watson makes a strong argument that only his astute leadership assured victory. An expert addition to the boundless literature surrounding Washington and the founding era."—Kirkus Reviews

"[T]his is an informative narrative of the contested founding of the nation’s capital for both general readers and academics."—Library Journal

"Expertly written, organized and presented, "George Washington's Final Battle: The Epic Struggle to Build a Capital City and a Nation" is an invaluable contribution to our growing understanding of the formative impact George Washington has had upon the American nation - an impact that still continues to this present day and into the foreseeable future."—Midwest Book Review


Supplemental Materials


About the Author

Robert P. Watson is a Distinguished Professor of American History at Lynn University and the author or editor of more than forty books, including The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn: An Untold Story of the American Revolution, The Nazi Titanic: The Incredible Untold Story of a Doomed Ship in World War II, and America’s First Crisis: The War of 1812. He is a frequent media commentator and activist who has founded three nonprofit think tanks dedicated to civic education, political reform, and fact-checking political campaigns.

384 pp., 6 x 9
9 color illus., 5 b&w illus.
ISBN: 978-1-62616-784-1
Feb 2021

384 pp., 6 x 9
9 color illus., 5 b&w illus.
Feb 2021

384 pp.
9 color illus., 5 b&w illus.
ISBN: 978-1-62616-785-8
Feb 2021

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