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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

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In the first line of his inaugural address, Washington expressed anxiety about his fitness for the presidency, saying that “no event could have filled me with greater anxieties” than the news brought to him by Charles Thomson. He had grown despondent, he said candidly, as he considered his own “inferior endowments from nature” and his lack of practice in civil government. He drew comfort, however, from the fact that the “Almighty Being” had overseen America’s birth. “No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the affairs of men, more than the people of the United States.” Perhaps referring obliquely to the fact that he suddenly seemed older, he called Mount Vernon “a retreat which was rendered every day more necessary, as well as more dear to me, by the addition of habit to inclination and of frequent interruptions in my health to the gradual waste committed on it by time.” In the earlier inaugural address drafted with David Humphreys, Washington had included a disclaimer about his health, telling how he had “prematurely grown old in the service of my country.”

Setting the pattern for future inaugural speeches, Washington didn’t delve into policy matters, but trumpeted the big themes that would govern his administration, the foremost being the triumph of national unity over “local prejudices or attachments” that might subvert the country or even tear it apart. National policy needed to be rooted in private morality, which relied on the “eternal rules of order and right” ordained by heaven itself. On the other hand, Washington refrained from endorsing any particular form of religion. Knowing how much was riding on this attempt at republican government, he said that “the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican model of government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.“

After this speech, Washington led a broad procession of delegates up Broadway, along streets lined by armed militia, to an Episcopal prayer service at St. Paul’s Chapel, where he was given his own canopied pew. After these devotions ended, Washington had his first chance to relax until the evening festivities. That night Lower Manhattan was converted into a shimmering fairyland of lights. From the residences of Chancellor Livingston and General Knox, Washington observed the fireworks at Bowling Green, a pyrotechnic display that flashed lights in the sky for two hours. Washington’s image was displayed in transparencies hung in many windows, throwing glowing images into the night. This sort of celebration, ironically, would have been familiar to Washington from the days when new royal governors arrived in Williamsburg and were greeted by bonfires, fireworks and illuminations in every window.

Excerpted from Washington: A Life. Copyright © Ron Chernow. With the permission of the publisher, The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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