In their own words: President George Washington

Washington at his inauguration in New York, April 30, 1789 (National Archives, 148-CCD-92C)

This is the first part of a series, written by Jim Zeender, devoted to letters written by the Founding Fathers in their own words and often in their own hand.

As a registrar in the Exhibits Division of the National Archives for over 25 years, I have had the good fortune to work with many dedicated professionals at the National Archives. It has been a privilege to have access to the holdings, including the rarest of the rare. However, I always return to my favorites, the letters of the Founding Fathers.

Some of the most revealing letters come in a series of records blandly called Miscellaneous Letters in Record Group 59, General Records of the Department of State. Thanks to the irregularities of early recordkeeping, personal and official correspondence were sometimes mixed. These are draft letters or short notes with crossouts and annotations that illuminate the thoughts and work habits of the authors. The letters usually have to do with policy issues, but the topics are sometimes private and political. From the 1789 to early 1820s, there are hundreds of letters written by Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe.

In the official files of the early U.S. Government, we expect to find letters and memos on the subjects facing a youthful country: diplomacy, Indian relations, land settlement, taxation, roads, canals, domestic and international commerce, building government institutions and a capital city. However, it is surprising to find in these same records glimpses of personality and private, internal thoughts of the Founders.

The following letters reveal a side of Washington that make him recognizably and sometimes surprisingly human. How can you not sympathize with a man when he writes  “I am unable to sit yet but on soft cushings but have the Doctors assurances that a few days more will relieve me from the inconvenience I labor under at present on that account.” (Washington to Richard Henry Lee, August 2, 1789, RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters. Text from the Digital Edition of the Washington Papers, University of Virginia Press.)

The letters also reveal a man of his times and of character, and a great leader with a remarkable sensitivity to the meaning and power of symbols. Whether it be buttons for his coat or where to stay en route to New York, he recognized the impact of his decisions. In the first letter, Washington writes to James Madison of plans for his arrival in New York just prior to his first inauguration as President.

On the subject of lodgings I will frankly declare, I mean to go into none but hired ones. If these cannot be had tolerably convenient (I am not very nice [particular]) I would take rooms in the most decent Tavern, till a house can be provided for the more permanent reception of the President. I have already declined a very polite and pressing offer from the Governor, to lodge at his house till a place could be prepared for me; after which should any other of a similar nature be made, there would be no propriety in the acceptance. But as you are fully acquainted with sentiments on this subject, I shall only add, that as I mean to avoid private families on the one hand, so on another, I am not desirous of being placed early in a situation for entertaining. Therefore, hired (private) lodgings would not only be more agreeable to my own wishes, but, possibly, more consistent with the dictates of sound policy. For, as it is my wish and intention to conform to the public desire and expectation, with respect to the style proper for the Chief Magistrate to live in, it might be well to know (as far as the nature of the case will admit) what these are before he enters upon it. [Author’s emphasis. Letter from George Washington to James Madison, March 30, 1789. Original in Washington’s hand is in RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters. Text is from the Digital Edition of the George Washington Papers, University of Virginia Press]

Only two days later, he responds to a recent letter from his good friend and future Secretary of War, Henry Knox, on the failure of the First Congress to begin its business. Washington refers to the “Ocean of difficulties” awaiting him and his want of political skill. The former was certainly true, but Washington’s war experiences had made him an extremely skilled politician, a diplomat, and a national leader.

I feel for those Members of the new Congress, who, hitherto, have given an unavailing attendance at the theatre of business. For myself, the delay may be compared to a reprieve; for in confidence I can assure you—with the world it would obtain little credit—that my movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied with 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 & inclination which is necessary to manage the helm. I am sensible, that I am embarking the voice of my Countrymen and a good name of my own, on this voyage, but what returns will be made for them—Heaven alone can foretell. Integrity & firmness is all I can promise—these, be the voyage long or short; never shall 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.
[Original is at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Text is from the Digital Edition of the George Washington Papers, University of Virginia Press]

A few days later again writing to Knox, Washington finds meaning in what might seem a trifling object, the buttons for the coat he would wear at his first inauguration in New York. He was keenly aware of the important contribution domestic manufactures made to the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, especially ironworks in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. As President-elect, he was aware of their political value in times of peace and to the nation’s future growth.

Excerpt of letter from George Washington to Henry Knox, April 10, 1789. Original in Washington’s hand is in RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters (ARC 6277118)

“My dear Sir: The cloth and Buttons which accompanied your favor of the 30th . . . came safe by Colo. Hanson; and really do credit to the manufactures of this Country. As it requires Six more of the large (engraved) button to trim the Coat in the manner I wish it to be, I would thank you, my good Sir, for procuring that number and retaining them in your hands until my arrival at New York.” [Letter from George Washington to Henry Knox, April 10, 1789. Original in Washington’s hand is in RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters. Text is from the Digital Edition of the George Washington Papers, University of Virginia Press]

A bookseller in Boston before the war, Knox became Washington’s Chief Artillery Officer in the Continental Army. They both saw close at hand the weakness of the Continental Congress dependent on the states for money, supplies’ and soldiers. When it came time to form a new national government under the Constitution, Washington turned to Knox to be his first Secretary of War and relied on him as one of his principal advisers.

Washington was also close to Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, the who had served with him during the war and helped suppress the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania during fall of 1794. Lee served as governor of Virginia from 1791-94 and famously eulogized Washington: “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” (Henry Lee was the father of Robert E. Lee.)

In a letter from Washington to Lee, then Governor of Virginia, the travails of the number-one celebrity in the United States at the end of the 18th century are evident. As National Archives curator Alice Kamps recently said, it was “an early version of the papparazi.”

But to be frank, and I hope you will not be displeased with me for being so, I am so heartily tired of the attendance which, from one cause or another, I have bestowed on these kind of people [portrait artists], that it is now more than two years since I have resolved to sit no more for any of them; and have adhered to it; except in instances where it has been requested by public bodies, or for a particular purpose (not of the Painters) and could not, without offence, be refused. [Letter from George Washington to Henry Lee, July 3, 1793. Original in Washington’s hand is in RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters (ARC 5821568). Text is from Digital Edition of the George Washington Papers, University of Virginia Press]

The artist, William Williams, was persistent and asked the Alexandria Masonic Temple to make the request on his behalf. Washington finally relented, and the portrait now hangs there. The viewer will be the judge of Washington’s feelings as he sat there with a pained expression.

Historian and Washington biographer Richard Norton Smith summed it up nicely when he wrote “For [President Washington], there was no escaping the consequences of fame. Having carved the heroic statue of his own reputation, he could not easily climb down from the pedestal.”

Today, Presidents and pundits frequently refer to the White House bubble, the President’s difficulty to experience life as average Americans live it. This is not a new phenomenon. In a letter to Edmund Randolph, President Washington writes “the truth is, I go out no where; and those who call upon me, observe a silence which leaves me in ignorance in all these matters.”

(Letter from George Washington to Edmund Randolph, September 3, 1792, Original in Washington’s hand is in Record Group 59, Miscellaneous Letters. Text is available in the Digital Edition of the Washington Papers, University of Virginia)

4 thoughts on “In their own words: President George Washington

  1. Understanding the struggles which the Founding Fathers went through in establishing our freedoms both in the Revolutionary War and in the writing of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights is vital to the knowledge of both the understanding and the preservation of those freedoms. This makes the Founding Fathers Online a very important resource for the preservation and perpetuation of our republic.

  2. I am glad to read this post. Its author is to be commended for sharing portions of these records. They show the origins of our freedoms in this country. They are very vital to an understanding of both these freedoms themselves and that they be perpetuated and preserved. I am looking forward to reading the other posts in this series.

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