George Washington’s Birthday

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | February 22, 2014

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View of Gray’s Ferry with the triumphal arches erected for General Washington, April 20th, 1789. Library of Congress.

Maybe our grandmothers were right, after all, and we should be careful what we wish for, lest we get it. For many of the men who, more than anything, wanted to be President, and for some of the men who thought the job would be pleasant, the Presidency was a heartbreaking, life-shortening, oppressive experience. Life in the White House, these men said, was like a prison sentence. The first President, George Washington, was positively prescient in this regard: he assumed the office, he says here, feeling like a culprit being led to a place of execution…

The very man who defined the American presidency was probably the only man to occupy the office, this letter attests, who did not want the job. George Washington, writing here just a month away from his inauguration, says that 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…

Writing to his fellow general and war-time intimate Henry Knox (who he would name his first Secretary of War) Washington confesses:

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…

Flexner, in his magisterial biography 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.

This intimate letter is, it needs be noted, but 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 adorned by a later addition: “Integrity and firmness is all I can promise; these, be the voyage long or short, never shall forsake me.” But however Washington would, coming into office, finesse his promises, they were in fact kept – so much so, that leaving office, he was revered. As for himself, Washington seemed to be positively jubilant upon exiting the public stage. At the inauguration of his successor, John Adams, he appeared to Adams “to enjoy a triumph over me,” Adams recorded. “Methought I heard him say, ‘Ay! I’m fairly out and you fairly in. See which of us will be happiest!'”

GEORGE WASHINGTON. First President of the United States.

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.

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