The Life of George Washington By David Ramsay Chapter Eleven

Chapter Eleven — President Washington

It was intended that the new government should commence its operations on the 4th of March, 1789; but from accidental causes, the elections of Gen. Washington to the Presidency was officially announced to him at Mount Vernon, till the 14th of next April. This was done by Charles Thomson, Secretary of the late Congress who presented to him the certificate signed the President of the Senate of the United States, stating that George Washington was unanimously elected President. This unexpected delay was regretted by the public, but not by the newly elected President. In a letter to Gen. Knox, he observed--

"As to myself, the delay may be compared to a reprieve; for in confidence I tell you, (with the world it would obtain 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 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 are 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 are all I can promise. These, be the voyage long or short, shall never forsake me, 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."

On the second day after, receiving notice of his appointment, Washington set out for New-York. On his way thither, the road was crowded with numbers anxious to see the man of the people. Escorts of militia and of gentlemen of the first character and station, attended him from state to state, and he was every where received with the highest honours which a grateful and admiring people could confer. Addresses of congratulation were presented to him by the inhabitants of almost every place of consequence through which he passed, to all of which he returned such modest, unassuming answers, as were in every respect suitable to his situation. So great were the honours with which he was loaded, that they could scarcely have failed to produce haughtiness in the mind of any ordinary man; but nothing of the kind was ever discovered in this extraordinary age. On all occasions he behaved to all men with the affability of one citizen to another. He was truly great in deserving the plaudits of his country, but much greater in not being elated by them. Of the numerous addresses which were present-ed on this occasion, one subscribed by Dennis Ramsay, the mayor of Alexandria, in the name of the people of that city, who were the neighbours of Mr. Washington, was particularly and universally ally admired. It was in the following words:

" To George Washington Esq. President of the United States, "Again your country commands your care. Obedient to its wishes, unmindful of your ease, we see you again relinquishing the bliss of retirement, and this too, at a period of life when nature itself seems to authorize a preference of repose. Not to extol your glory as a soldier; not to pour forth our gratitude for past services; and not to acknowledge the justice of the unexampled honour which has been conferred upon you by the spontaneous and unanimous suffrage of three millions of freemen, in your election to the supreme magistracy, nor to admire the patriotism which directs your conduct, do your neighbours and friends now address you. Themes less splendid, but more endearing, impress our minds. The first and best of citizens must leave us; our aged 1789 must lose their ornament; our youth their model; our agriculture its improver; our commerce its friend; our infant academy its protector; our poor their benefactor; and the interior navigation of the Potowmac, (an event, replete with the most extensive utility, already by your unremitted ex-ertions brought into partial use,) its institutor and promoter.

"Farewell. Go, and make a grateful people happy, a people who will be doubly grateful when they contemplate this recent sacrifice for their interest.

"To that Being who maketh and unmaketh at his will, we commend you; and after the accomplishment of the arduous business to which you are called, may he restore to us the best of men, and the most beloved fellow-citizen."

To this Mr. Washington returned the following answer:


"Although I ought not to conceal, yet I cannot describe.. the -painful emotions which I felt, in being called upon to determine whether I would accept or refuse the Presidency of the United States. The unanimity in the choice; the opinion of my friends communicated from different parts of Europe as well as from America; the apparent wish of those who were not entirely satisfied with the constitution in its present form, and an ardent desire on my own part to be instrumental in connecting the good will of my countrymen towards each other, have induced an acceptance. Those who know me best, (and you, my fellow-citizens, are, from your situation, in that number,) 1789 know better than any others, my love of retirement is so great that no earthly consideration, short of a conviction of duty, could have prevailed upon me to depart from my resolution "never more to take any share in transactions of a public nature;" for at my age, and in my circumstances, what prospects or advantages could I propose to myself from embarking again on the tempestuous and uncertain ocean of public life?

"I do not feel myself under the necessity of making public declarations in order to convince you, gentlemen, of my attachment to yourselves, and regard for your interests. The whole tenour of my life has been open to your inspection, and my past actions, rather than my present declara-tions, must be the pledge of my future conduct.

"In the mean time, I thank you most sincerely for the expressions of kindness contained in your valedictory address. 1$ is true, just after having bade adieu to my domestic connexions, this ten-der proof of your friendship is but too well calcu-lated still further to awaken my sensibility, and increase my regret at parting from the enjoy-ment of private life. "All that now remains for me, is to commit myself and you to the protection of that beneficent Being, who on a former occasion hath happily brought us together, after a long and distressing separation. Perhaps the same gracious Providence will again indulge me. Unutterable sensations must then be left to more expressive silence, while from an aching heart I bid all my affectionate friends and kind neighbours farewell."

Gray's bridge over the Schuylkill, which Mr. Washington had to pass, was highly decorated with laurels and evergreens. At each end of it were erected magnificent arches, composed of lau-rels, emblematical of the ancient Roman triumphal arches, and on each side of the bridge was a laurel shrubbery. As Mr. Washington passed the bridge, a youth ornamented with sprigs of laurel, assisted by machinery, let drop above his head, though unperceived by him, a civic crown of laurel. Upwards of 20,000 citizens lined the fences, fields, and avenues, between the Schuylkill and Philadel-phia. Through these he was conducted to the city by a numerous and respectable body of the citizens, where he partook of an elegant en-tertainment provided for him. The pleasures of the day were succeeded by a handsome display of fireworks in the evening.

When Mr. Washington crossed the Delaware, and landed on the Jersey shore, he was saluted with three cheers by the inhabitants of the vicinity. When he came to the brow of the hill on his way to Trenton, a triumphal arch was erected on the bridge by the direction of the ladies of the place. The crown of the arch was highly orna-mented with laurels and flowers, and on it was displayed in large figures, "December 26th, 1776." On the sweep of the arch beneath, was this inscription--" The Defender of the Mothers will also protect their Daughters."

On the north side were ranged a number of female children dressed in white, with garlands of flowers on their heads, and baskets of flowers on their arms; in the second row stood the young women, and behind them the married ladies of the vicinity. The instant he passed the arch, the children began to sing following ode:

"Welcome mighty chief! once more "Welcome to this grateful shore. "Now no mercenary foe Aims again the fatal blow, "Aims at thee the fatal blow, "Virgins fair, and matrons grave, "These thy conquering arm did save! "Build for thee triumphal bowers: "Strew, ye fair, his way with flowers; "Strew your hero's way with flowers."

As they sung the last lines, they strewed their flowers on the road before their beloved deliverer. His situation on this occasion, contrasted with what he had in December, 1776, felt on the same spot, when the affairs of America were at the lowest ebb of depression, filled him with sensations that cannot be described. He was rowed across the hay from Elizabethtown to New-York, in an elegant barge, by thirteen pilots. All the vessels in the harbour hoisted their flags. Stairs were erected and decorated for his reception, On his landing, universal joy diffused itself through every order of the people, and he was received and con-gratulated by the Governor of the state, and offi-cers of the corporation. He was conducted from the landing place to the house which had been fitted up for his reception, and was followed by an elegant procession of militia in their uniforms and by a great number of citizens. In the evening the houses of the inhabitants were brilliantly illuminated.

A day was fixed soon after his arrival, for his taking the oath of office, which was in the follow-ing words. "I do solemnly swear, that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States; and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the constitution of the United States."

On this occasion he was wholly clothed in American manufactures. In the morning of the day appointed for this purpose, the clergy of different denominations assembled their congregations in their respective places of worship, and offered up public prayers for the President and people of the United States. About noon a procession, followed by a multitude of citizens, moved from the President's house to Federal Hall. When they came within a short distance from the Hall, the troops formed a line on both sides of the way, through which Mr. Washington, accompanied by the Vice-President, Mr. John Adams, passed into the Senate chamber. Immediately after, accompanied by both houses, he went into the gallery fronting Broad-street, and before them and an immense concourse of citizens, took the oath prescribed by the constitution, which was administered by R. R. Livingston, the Chancellor of the state of New-York. An awful silence prevailed among the spectators during this part of the ceremony. It was a minute of the most sublime political joy. The Chancellor then proclaimed him President of the United States. This was answered by the discharge of 13 guns: and by the effusions of shouts from near 10,000 grateful and affectionate hearts. The President bowed most respectfully to the people, and the air resounded again with their acclamations. He then retired to the Senate Chamber, where he made the following speech to both houses.

"Fellow citizens of the Senate and of the 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 pecu-liarly 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 effected. All I dare hope is, that, if in accepting this task, I have been too much swayed by a grateful remembrance of former circumstances, 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.

"Such being the impressions under which I have, in obedience to the public summons, repaired to the present station; it will be peculiarly improper to emit, in this first official act, my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe; who presides in the councils of nations; and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that his benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States, a government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes; and may enable every instrument employed in its administration, to execute with success, the functions allotted to his charge.

"In tendering this homage to the great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own; nor those of my fellow-citizens at large, less than either. 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. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency; and in the important revolution just accomplished in the system of their united government, the tranquil deliberations and voluntary consent of so many distinct communities, from which the event has resided, cannot be compared with the means by which most governments have been established, without some return of pious gratitude along with an humble anticipation of the future blessings which the past seem to presage.

"These reflections, arising out of the present crisis, have forced themselves too strongly on my mind to be suppressed. You will join with me, I trust, in thinking that There are none, under the influence of which the proceedings of a new and free government can more auspiciously com-mence.

"By the article establishing the executive department, it is made the duty of the president 'to recommend to your consideration, such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.' The circumstances under which I now meet you will acquit me from entering into that subject, further than to refer to the great constitutional charter under which you are assembled, and which, in defining your powers, designates the objects to which your attention is to be given. 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 honourable qualifications, I behold the surest pledges that, as on one side, no local prejudices or attachments, no separate views nor 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 immutahle principles, of private morality; and the preeminence of free government be exemplified by all the attributes which can win the affections of its citizens, and command the respect of time 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.

"Besides the ordinary objects submitted to your care, it will remain with your judgment to decide, how far an exercise of the occasional power delegated by the fifth article of the constitution is rendered expedient, at the present juncture, by the nature of objections which have, been urged against the system, or by the degree of inquietude which has given birth to them. Instead of undertaking particular recommendations on this subject, in which I could be guided by no lights derived from official opportunities, I shall again give way to my entire confidence in your. discernment and pursuit of the public good: for I assure myself that whilst you carefully avoid every alteration which might endanger the benefits of a united and effective government, or which ought to await the future lessons of experience; a reverence for the characteristic rights of freemen, and a regard for the public harmony, will sufficiently influence your deliberations on the question how far the former can be more impregnably fortified, or the latter be safely and advantageously promoted.

"To the preceding observations I have one to add, which will be most properly addressed to the house of representatives. It concerns myself and will therefore be as brief as possible. When I was first honoured with a call into the service of my country, then on the eve of an arduous struggle for its liberties, the light, in which I contemplated my duty required that I should renounce every pecuniary compensation. From this resolution I have in no instance departed. And being still under the impressions which produced it, I must decline, as inapplicable to myself, any share in the personal emoluments which may be indispensable included in a permanent provision for the executive department; and must accordingly pray that the pecuniary estimates for the station in which I am placed, may, during my continuance in it, be limited to each actual expenditures as the public good may be thought to require.

"Having thus imparted to you my sentiments, as they have been awakened by the occasion which brings us together, I shall take my present leave; but not without resorting once more to the benign Parent of the human race, in humble supplication, that since he has been pleased to favour the American people with opportunities for deliberating in perfect tranquillity, and dispositions for deciding with unparralleled unanimity on a form of government for the security of their union, and the advancement of their happiness; so his diving blessing may be equally conspicuous in the enlarged views, the temperate consultations, and the wise measures on which the success of this government must depend."

"In their answer to this speech, the senate say:

"The unanimous suffrage of the elective body in your favour, is peculiarly expressive of the gratitude, confidence, and affection of the citizens of America, and is the highest testimonial at once of your merit, and their esteem. We are sensible, sir, that nothing but the voice of your fellow-citizens could have called you from a retreat, chosen with the fondest predilection, endeared by habit, and consecrated to the repose of declining years. We rejoice, and with us all America, that, in obedience to the call of our common country, you have returned once more to public life. In you all parties confide; in you all interests unite; and we have no doubt that your past services, great as they have been, will be equalled by your future exertions; and that your prudence and sagacity as a statesman, will tend to avert the dangers to which we were exposed, to give stability to the present government, and dignity and splendour to that country, which your skill and valour as a soldier, so eminently contributed to raise to independence and to empire."

The affection for the person and character of the President with which the answer of the house of representatives glowed, promised that between this branch of the legislature also and the executive, the most harmonious co-operation in the public service might be expected.

"The representatives of the people of the United States," says this address, "present their congratulations on the event by which your fellow-citizens have attested the pre-eminence of your merit. You have long held the first place in their esteem. You have often received tokens of their affection. You now possess the only proof that remained of their gratitude for your services, of their reverence for your wisdom, and of their confidence in your virtues. You enjoy the highest, because the truest honour, of being the first magistrate, by the unanimous choice of the freest people on the face of the earth.

"We well know the anxieties with which you must have obeyed the summons from the repose reserved for your declining years, into public scenes of which you had taken your leave for ever. But obedience was due to the occasion. It is already applauded by the universal joy which welcomes you to your station. And we cannot doubt that it will be rewarded with all the satisfaction with which an ardent love for your fellow-citizens must review successful efforts to promote their happiness.

"This anticipation is not justified merely by the past experience of your signal services. It is particularly suggested by the pious impressions under which you commence your administration; and the enlightened maxims by which you mean to conduct it. We feel with you the strongest obligations to adore the invisible hand which has led the American people through so many difficulties; to cherish a conscious responsibility for the destiny of republican liberty; and to seek the only sure means of preserving and recommending the precious deposit in a system of legislation founded on the principles of an honest policy, and directed by the spirit of a diffusive patriotism.

"In forming the pecuniary provisions for the executive department, we shall not lose sight of a wish resulting from motives which give it a peculiar claim to our regard. Your resolution, in a moment critical to the liberties of your country, to renounce all personal emolument, was among the many presages of your patriotic services, which have been amply fulfilled; and your scrupulous adherence now to the law then imposed whilst it increase the lustre of a character which has so many titles to admiration.

"Such are the sentiments with which we have thought fit to address you. They flow from our own hearts, and we verily believe that among the millions we represent, there is not a virtuous citizen whose heart will disown them.

"All that remains is, that we join in your fervent supplications for the blessing of Heaven on our country; and that we add our own for the choicest of these blessings on the most beloved of her citizens."

The President and Congress then attended on divine service.

In the evening a very ingenious and splendid show of fireworks was exhibited. Betwixt the fort and the Bowling-Green stood conspicuous, a superb and brilliant transparent painting, in the centre of which was the portrait of the President, represented under the emblem of fortitude; on the right hand was Justice, representing the Senate of the United States, and on his left Wisdom, representing the House of Representatives.

When Washington commenced his administration, the condition of the United States was so embarrassed as to excite many fears for the success of the new government. The treasury was empty. Large debts were due both by the old Congress and individuals to foreigners, and also from the United States to its own citizens, and from citizens to citizens. Every effort made by the former government to pay, or even to fund its debts, had failed, from the imbecility of the federal system. Great discontents prevailed in the United States, for the party opposed to the new constitution was strong and numerous. Several of these were elected to seats in the new Congress. Some were clamorous for a new convention, and the most moderate for amendments of what had been modified. Two states, North-Carolina and Rhode-Island, by refusing an acceptance of the constitution, were without the pale of its operations.

Animosities prevailed to a great degree between the United States and Great-Britain. Each charged the other with a breach of their late treaty. In support of these charges, one party urged the severities practised towards the loyalists, and that some of the states had interposed legal impediments to the recovery of debts due to British subjects.

The other recriminated by alleging, that the British, on their departure from the United States, had carried off with them several thousands of negroes belonging to the Americans; and continued to possess sundry posts within the acknowledged limits of the United States; and that from these posts they encouraged and instigated the neighbouring Indians to make war on their northwestern frontier settlements.

Spain, from their circumstance of their owning the land on each side of the mouth of the Mississippi, claimed the exclusive navigation of that river; while the western inhabitants of the United States looked to their country for a vindication of their common right to the use of this highway of nature. The boundaries of the United States towards the territories of Spain in the south, and towards those of Britain in the north-east, were both unsettled and in dispute.

The whole regular effective force of the United States, was less than six hundred men. Their trade was restricted much more than when they formed a part of the British empire. They had neither money to purchase, nor a naval force to compel the friendship of the Barbary powers; and were therefore exposed to capture whenever they ventured to trade in the Mediterranean, the coasts of which offered the best markets for some of their valuable commodities.

The military strength of the northern Indians who inhabited the country between the Lakes, the Mississippi, and the Ohio, was computed at 5000 then, and of these 1,500 were at open war with the United States. The Creeks, in the south-west, who could bring 6,000 fighting men into the field, were at war with Georgia.

These were but a part of the embarrassments under which the United States laboured when Gen. Washington was called to the helm. The redress of most of them required legislative interference, as well as executive aid. To point out the particular agency of the President in removing these embarrassments, and generally meliorating the condition of the United States, is peculiarly the province of the biographer of Washington.

Congress having organized the great departments of government, it became the duty of the President to designate proper persons to fill them. In discharging this delicate and difficult trust, Washington kept himself free from every engagement, and uniformly declined giving decisive answers to applicants, having previously resolved to nominate persons to offices with a sole view to the public good, and to bring forward those who, upon every consideration, and from the best information he could obtain, were in his judgment most likely to answer the great end.

Under these impressions he placed Col. Hamilton at the head of the Treasury Department.

At the head of the Department of Foreign Affairs, he placed Mr. Thomas Jefferson.

General Knox was continued in the Department of War, which he had filled under the old Congress.

The office of Attorney General was assigned to Mr. Edmund Randolph.

These composed the cabinet council of the first President.

The judicial department was filled as follows:

John Jay, of New-York, Chief Justice. John Rutledge, of South Carolina, James Wilson, of Pennsylvania, William Cushing, of Massachusetts, Robert Harrison, of Maryland, and John Blair, of Virginia, Associate Judges.

The officers who had been appointed by the individual states to manage the revenue, which, under the old system, was paid into the state treasury, were re-appointed to corresponding offices under the new constitution, by which the revenue had been transferred from the local to the general treasury of the union.

It was among the first cares of Washington to make peace with the Indians. Gen. Lincoln, Mr. Griffin, and Col. Humphreys, very soon after the inauguration of the President, were deputed by him to treat with the Creek Indians. These met with McGillvray, and other chiefs of the nation, with about 2,000 men, at the Rock Landing, on the frontiers of Georgia. The negociations were soon broken off by McGillvray, whose personal interests and connexion with Spain were supposed to have been the real cause of their abrupt and unsuccessful termination.

The next year brought round an accomplishment of the President's wishes, which had failed in the first attempt. Policy and interest concurred in recommending every prudent measure for detaching the Creek Indians from all connexion with the Spaniards, and cementing their friendship with the United States. Negociations carried on with them in the vicinity of the Spanish settlements, promised less than negociations conducted at the seat of government.

To induce a disposition favourable to this change of place, the President sent Col. Willet, a gallant and intelligent officer of the late army, into the Creek country, apparently on private business, but with a letter of introduction to McGillvray, and with instructions to take occasional opportunities to point out the distresses which a war with the United States would bring on the Creek nation, and the indiscretion of their breaking off the negociation at the Rock Landing; and to exhort him to repair with the chiefs of his nation to New-York, in order to effect a solid and lasting peace. Willet performed these duties with so much dexterity, that McGillvray, with the chiefs of his nation, were induced to come to New-York, where fresh negociations commenced, which, on the 7th of August, 1790, terminated in the establishment of peace.

The pacific overtures made by Washington to the Indians of the Wabash and the Miamis, failed of success. Long experience had taught the President, that on the failure of negociations with Indians, policy, economy, and even humanity, required the employment of a sufficient force to carry offensive war into their country, and lay waste their settlements.

The accomplishment of this was no easy matter. The Indian nations were numerous, accustomed to war, and not without discipline. They were said to be furnished with arms and ammunition from the British posts held within the United States, in violation of the treaty of peace. Generals Harmar and Sinclair were successively defeated by the Indians; and four or five years elapsed before they were subdued. This was accomplished by Gen. Wayne, in 1794.

Soon after that event, a peace was concluded, under his auspices, between these Indians and the United States. In the progress of this last Indian war, repeated overtures of peace were made to the North-western Indians, but rejected. About the same period a new system was commenced for turning them off from hunting to the employments of civilized life, by furnishing them with implements and instructions for agriculture and manufactures.

In this manner, during the Presidency of George Washington, peace was restored to the frontier settlements both in the north and south-west, which has continued ever since, and it is likely to do so, while, at the same time, the prospect of meliorating the condition of the savages is daily brightening; for the system first began by Washington with the view of civilizing these fierce sons of nature, have been ever since steadily pursued by all his successors. Indian wars are now only known from the records or recollection of past event; and it probable that the day is not far distant when the United States will receive a considerable accession of citizens from the civilized red men of the forest.

End of Chapter Eleven. Continue to Chapter Twelve of The Life of Washington