Item of the Day: Washington’s First Inaugural Address (1789)

Full Title: The Writings of George Washington; Being His Correspondence, Addresses, Messages, and Other Papers, Official and Private, selected and published from the original manuscripts, with A Life of the Author, Notes, and Illustrations. Volume XII. By Jared Sparks Printed in Boston by John B. Russell, 1837.

[Washington’s retirement after 1783 was short-lived. The virtuous citizenry whom he hoped would emerge after the Revolution, had yet to appear as evidenced by the disspiriting Shays’ Rebellion of 1 786. Washington recognized that the Articles of Confederation were far too weak to cement the fledgling republic now threatening to splinter. But he was reluctant to attend a meeting to revise the Articles (which became the Constitutional Convention) not only because he questioned its legality but because he had formally retired from public life. Persuaded that his presence was not only desired but necessary if the meeting was to be effective, Washington agreed to go to Philadelphia. Although his role was at the Convention by all accounts minimal, but he gave the meeting its necessary legitimacy. After ratification, Washington’s sterling reputation and wartime heroism were revered from every factious corner making him the unanimous choice to be first president of the national government. On April 14, 1789 Washington received notification of his election. A few days later he left Mount Vernon for New York City where on April 30 he took the oath of office on the steps of Federal Hall at the corner of Wall and Broad Streets. Keenly aware of his obligation to create a dignified presidency that would act as a precedent for all future presidents, his was a model of decorum and public virtue, respectability and morality, a powerful stabilizing presence of an honorable chief executive during a delicate period of transition from colonial dependency to independent republic.]

Inaugural Speech to Both Houses of Congress, April 30th, 1789.

Fellow-Citizens of the Senate and House of Representatives,

Among the vicissitudes incident to life, no event could have filled me with greater anxieties, than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order, and received on the 14th day of the present month. On the one hand, I was summoned by my country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love, from a retreat which I had chosen with the fondest predilection, and, in my flattering hopes, with an immutable decision, as the asylum of my declining years; 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. On the other hand, the magnitude and difficulty of the trust, to which the voice of my country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most experienced of her citizens a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications, could not but overwhelm with despondence one, who, inheriting inferior endowments from nature, and unpractised in the duties of civil administration, ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies. In this conflict of emotions, all I dare aver is, that it has been my faithful study to collect my duty from a just appreciation of every circumstance by which it might be affected. All I dare hope is, that, if in executing this task, I have been too much swayed by a grateful remembrance of former instances, or by an affectionate sensibility to this transcendent proof of the confidence of my fellow-citizens; and have thence too little consulted my incapacity as well as disinclination for the weighty and untried cares before me; my error will be palliated by the motives which misled me, and its consequences be judged by my country with some share of the partiality in which they originated.

. . . It will be more consistent with those circumstances, and far more congenial with the feelings which actuate me, to substitute, in place of a recommendation of particular measures, the tribute that is due to the talents, the rectitude, and the patriotism, which adorn the characters selected to devise and adopt them. In these honorable qualifications I behold the surest pledges, that as, on one side, no local prejudices or attachments, no separate views or party animosities, will misdirect the comprehensive and equal eye, which ought to watch over this great assemblage of communities and interests; so, on another, that the foundations of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality, and the preeminence of a free government be exemplified by all the attributes, which can win the affection of its citizens, and command the respect of the world.

I dwell on this prospect with every satisfaction, which an ardent love for my country can inspire; since there is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage, between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity; since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained; and since the preservation of 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 intrusted to the hands of the American people. . . .

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Filed under 1780's, Legal, Posted by Rebecca Dresser

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