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On February 4, 1789, the 69 members of the Electoral College made George Washington the only chief executive to be unanimously elected. (Illustration by Joe Ciardiello)

George Washington: The Reluctant President

It seemed as if everyone rejoiced at the election of our first chief executive except the man himself

As Washington entered Philadelphia, he found himself, willy-nilly, at the head of a full-scale parade, with 20,000 people lining the streets, their eyes fixed on him in wonder. “His Excellency rode in front of the procession, on horseback, politely bowing to the spectators who filled the doors and windows by which he passed,” reported the Federal Gazette, noting that church bells rang as Washington proceeded to his old haunt, the City Tavern. After the bare-knuckled fight over the Constitution, the newspaper editorialized, Washington had united the country. “What a pleasing reflection to every patriotic mind, thus to see our citizens again united in their reliance on this great man who is, a second time, called upon to be the savior of his country!” By the next morning, Washington had grown tired of the jubilation. When the light horse cavalry showed up to accompany him to Trenton, they discovered he had left the city an hour earlier “to avoid even the appearance of pomp or vain parade,” reported one newspaper.

As Washington approached the bridge over Assunpink Creek in Trenton, the spot where he had stood off the British and Hessians, he saw that the townsfolk had erected a magnificent floral arch in his honor and emblazoned it with the words “December 26, 1776” and the proclamation “The Defender of the Mothers will also Defend the Daughters.” As he rode closer, 13 young girls, robed in spotless white, walked forward with flower-filled baskets, scattering petals at his feet. Astride his horse, tears standing in his eyes, he returned a deep bow as he noted the “astonishing contrast between his former and actual situation at the same spot.” With that, three rows of women—young girls, unmarried ladies and married ones—burst into a fervent ode on how he had saved fair virgins and matrons alike. The adulation only quickened Washington’s self-doubt. “I greatly apprehend that my countrymen will expect too much from me,” he wrote to Rutledge. “I fear, if the issue of public measures should not correspond with their sanguine expectations, they will turn the extravagant...praises which they are heaping upon me at this moment into equally extravagant...censures.” There was no way, it seemed, that he could dim expectations or escape public reverence.

By now sated with adulation, Washington preserved a faint hope that he would be allowed to make an inconspicuous entry into New York. He had pleaded with Gov. George Clinton to spare him further hoopla: “I can assure you, with the utmost sincerity, that no reception can be so congenial to my feelings as a quiet entry devoid of ceremony.” But he was fooling himself if he imagined he might slip unobtrusively into the temporary capital. Never reconciled to the demands of his celebrity, Washington still fantasized that he could shuck that inescapable burden. When he arrived at Elizabethtown, New Jersey, on April 23, he beheld an impressive phalanx of three senators, five congressmen and three state officials awaiting him. He must have intuited, with a sinking sensation, that this welcome would eclipse even the frenzied receptions in Philadelphia and Trenton. Moored to the wharf was a special barge, glistening with fresh paint, constructed in his honor and equipped with an awning of red curtains in the rear to shelter him from the elements. To nobody’s surprise, the craft was steered by 13 oarsmen in spanking white uniforms.

As the barge drifted into the Hudson River, Washington made out a Manhattan shoreline already “crowded with a vast concourse of citizens, waiting with exulting anxiety his arrival,” a local newspaper said. Many ships anchored in the harbor were garlanded with flags and banners for the occasion. If Washington gazed back at the receding Jersey shore, he would have seen that his craft led a huge flotilla of boats, including one bearing the portly figure of Gen. Henry Knox. Some boats carried musicians and female vocalists on deck, who serenaded Washington across the waters. “The voices of the ladies were...superior to the flutes that played with the stroke of the oars in Cleopatra’s silken-corded barge,” was the imaginative verdict of the New York Packet. These wafted melodies, united with repeated cannon roar and thunderous acclaim from crowds onshore, again oppressed Washington with their implicit message of high expectations. As he confided to his diary, the intermingled sounds “filled my mind with sensations as painful (considering the reverse of this scene, which may be the case after all my labors to do good) as they are pleasing.” So as to guard himself against later disappointment, he didn’t seem to allow himself the smallest iota of pleasure.

When the presidential barge landed at the foot of Wall Street, Governor Clinton, Mayor James Duane, James Madison and other luminaries welcomed him to the city. The officer of a special military escort stepped forward briskly and told Washington that he awaited his orders. Washington again labored to cool the celebratory mood, which burst forth at every turn. “As to the present arrangement,” he replied, “I shall proceed as is directed. But after this is over, I hope you will give yourself no further trouble, as the affection of my fellow-citizens is all the guard I want.” Nobody seemed to take the hint seriously.

The streets were solidly thronged with well-wishers and it took Washington a half-hour to arrive at his new residence at 3 Cherry Street, tucked away in the northeast corner of the city, a block from the East River, near the present-day Brooklyn Bridge. One week earlier, the building’s owner, Samuel Osgood, had agreed to allow Washington to use it as the temporary presidential residence. From the descriptions of Washington’s demeanor en route to the house, he finally surrendered to the general mood of high spirits, especially when he viewed the legions of adoring women. As New Jersey Representative Elias Boudinot told his wife, Washington “frequently bowed to the multitude and took off his hat to the ladies at the windows, who waved their handkerchiefs and threw flowers before him and shed tears of joy and congratulation. The whole city was one scene of triumphal rejoicing.”

Though the Constitution said nothing about an inaugural address, Washington, in an innovative spirit, contemplated such a speech as early as January 1789 and asked a “gentleman under his roof”—David Humphreys—to draft one. Washington had always been economical with words, but the collaboration with Humphreys produced a wordy document, 73 pages long, which survives only in tantalizing snippets. In this curious speech, Washington spent a ridiculous amount of time defending his decision to become president, as if he stood accused of some heinous crime. He denied that he had accepted the presidency to enrich himself, even though nobody had accused him of greed. “In the first place, if I have formerly served the community without a wish for pecuniary compensation, it can hardly be suspected that I am at present influenced by avaricious schemes.” Addressing a topical concern, he disavowed any desire to found a dynasty, citing his childless state. Closer in tone to future inaugural speeches was Washington’s ringing faith in the American people. He devised a perfect formulation of popular sovereignty, writing that the Constitution had brought forth “a government of the people: that is to say, a government in which all power is derived from, and at stated periods reverts to, them—and that, in its operation...is purely a government of laws made and executed by the fair substitutes of the people alone.”

This ponderous speech never saw the light of day. Washington sent a copy to James Madison, who wisely vetoed it on two counts: that it was much too long and that its lengthy legislative proposals would be interpreted as executive meddling with the legislature. Instead, Madison helped Washington draft a far more compact speech that avoided the tortured introspection of its predecessor. A whirlwind of energy, Madison would seem omnipresent in the early days of Washington’s administration. Not only did he help draft the inaugural address, he also wrote the official response by Congress and then Washington’s response to Congress, completing the circle. This established Madison, despite his role in the House, as a pre-eminent adviser and confidant to the new president. Oddly enough, he wasn’t troubled that his advisory relationship to Washington might be construed as violating the separation of powers.

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