April 01, 1789

George Washington Dreads Assuming the Presidency: He Feels As If He’s Being Led to His Execution

Autograph Letter Signed
1 page
SMC 433
The very man who defined the American presidency did not, this letter attests, want to be president. Thirty days before his April 30th Inauguration, George Washington says, he feels as though he is being led to a place of execution. He hasn’t the political skill or the ability or even the inclination, he insists, to lead. And he fears, terribly, that he risks his good name in assuming the presidency. Yet like a Cincinnatus - the early Roman hero who laid down his plow when called to rescue his country, and then took it up again when his mission was accomplished - Washington prepares to bear the burden of leadership…

In confidence I tell
you with the world it would obtain little credit) that my movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution: so unwilling am I, in the evening of a life nearly consumed in public cares, to quit a peaceful abode for an Ocean of difficulties, without that competency of political skill, abilities and inclination which is necessary to manage the helm. I am sensible that I am embarking the voice of the people and a good name of my own, on this voyage, but what returns will be made for them, Heaven alone can foretell. Integrity and firmness is all I can promise; these, shall never forsake me although I may be deserted by all men; for of the consolations which are to be derived from these under any circumstances, the world cannot deprive me…

This intimate letter is, however, a draft, and differs textually, and grammatically, from the version sent forward. Most changes involve word substitution, as “for” became “by," “tell” became “assure," “the people” became “my Countrymen” and the members of Congress attending the “theatre of action” are found, in the polished draft, at the “theatre of business.” Here too the line “Integrity and firmness is all I can promise; these, shall never forsake me” is unadorned by  later addition, “Integrity and firmness is all I can promise; these, be the voyage long or short, never shall forsake me.”

Historian James Flexner, in his magisterial work on Washington, says that this letter is as dark as any Washington ever wrote, even during the blackest hours of the Revolution. The unanimous choice of “the people” to be president had, it seemed, no choice at all.
Autograph Letter Signed (“G. Washington”), as President-Elect, being a draft; 1 page, quarto, Mount Vernon, April 1, 1789. To Major General Henry Knox. With autograph docket on verso.

Being a working draft, there are textual and grammatical differences between this letter and the one sent forward.
Used with the permission of Shapell legacy partnership.
Read transcript Bookmark