George Washington Writes in the Margins

Today’s blog post comes from Susan K. Donius, Director of the Office of Presidential Libraries at the National Archives. This post originally appeared on the White House blog.

Last month, President Obama began his second Inaugural Address by saying, “Each time we gather to inaugurate a President we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution.” President Obama’s words resonate as the anniversary of George Washington’s birthday approaches on February 22, popularly known as Presidents Day.

Over two centuries ago, on April 30, 1789, George Washington delivered his first Inaugural Address knowing that he had little to guide him in the job that lay ahead but the principles stated in the Constitution.  The Articles of the Constitution had been debated, discussed, and agreed upon just two summers earlier by the delegates of the Constitution Convention, and were still untested.  Nevertheless, Washington was a strong supporter of the Constitution and would look to it for guidance in his unprecedented role as President.

During Washington’s first year in office, Congress ordered 600 copies of the Acts of Congress to be printed and distributed to Federal and state government officials. The book compiled the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and other legislation passed by the first session of Congress.

George Washington’s personal copy of the Acts of Congress contains his own handwritten notes in the margins. The notes provide insight into his crucial role in the implementation and interpretation of the Constitution and the establishment of the new American government.

George Washington’s personal copy of the Acts of Congress. His signature appears inside. Printed by Frances Childs and John Swaine and bound by Thomas Allen in 1789. Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

Washington rarely wrote on the pages of his books, and the presence of his distinct handwriting makes the historic volume even more remarkable. Customarily, Washington preferred to take notes on a separate sheet of paper, which he would insert into a book. But in his copy of the Acts of Congress, he not only wrote directly in the margins but also drew brackets next to the passages of particular interest to him.

Only three copies of this book are known to have survived: Washington’s copy and the copies belonging to Thomas Jefferson and John Jay. After his two terms in office, Washington brought the book home to Mount Vernon. It stayed in the Washington family until 1876 and then passed through a series of collectors.

Last year, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association secured the book at an auction, bringing it back to George Washington’s home. It is now on display at Mount Vernon in Virginia through Presidents Day.  Beginning in March, Washington’s Acts of Congress will travel the country and visit the 13 Presidential Libraries of the National Archives through a partnership with Mount Vernon.


George Washington's bookplate, which he pasted inside the front cover of the Acts of Congress. The armorial bookplate features the Washington family coat of arms, with three five-pointed stars above two horizontal bars. The flag for the District of Columbia is based on the Washington family coat of arms. Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

In George Washington’s first Inaugural Address he referred to the new government as an “experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.” Fifty-six Presidential inaugurations later, Barack Obama spoke of the Constitution as an enduring framework for our government. The opportunity to see Washington’s Acts of Congress, complete with his carefully penciled notes, provides a rare glimpse into history that is as relevant today as it was 224 years ago.

The nationwide tour of the Acts of Congress is also an opportunity to reflect on the Presidency and to wonder what it would feel like to take on the role of Commander in Chief. We’ve put together a gallery of inaugural moments that feature holdings from the 13 Presidential Libraries.

And while there are no photos of America’s first Presidential inauguration, we’ve included pages from George Washington’s first Inaugural Address from the holdings of the National Archives, as well as Washington’s historic copy of the Acts of Congress, courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

Learn more about the Acts of Congress at Mount Vernon:

The Acts of Congress at the Presidential Libraries of the National Archives:

Page one of George Washington’s First Inaugural Address. National Archives, Records of the U.S. Senate. 4/30/1789. Transcript:
Page eight of George Washington’s First Inaugural Address. National Archives, Records of the U.S. Senate. 4/30/1789. Transcript:
Invitation to the 1949 Inauguration of Harry S. Truman addressed to The President and Mrs. Truman. President Truman’s handwritten inscription at top right reads, “Weather permitting I hope to be present. H.S.T.”
President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon leaving National Presbyterian Church following a pre-inaugural service. The service took place before the private swearing-in ceremony. Inauguration Day fell on a Sunday in 1957, so Eisenhower repeated the oath-of-office the next day in the public ceremonies. Shown from left to right are: Barbara Eisenhower, John S.D. Eisenhower, Mamie Eisenhower, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Tricia Nixon, Pat Nixon, Richard Nixon with Julie Nixon standing in front of him, and Reverend Edward Elson. 1/20/57.
Herbert Hoover takes the oath of office from Chief Justice (and former President) William Howard Taft. 3/4/29.
Lyndon B. Johnson’s family bible. The text embossed inside the front cover reads, “This bible was used by Lyndon Baines Johnson when he took the oath as Vice President of the U.S., 1961, and as President of the U.S., 1965."
Franklin D. Roosevelt takes the oath of office at his first inauguration. The now famous line from his first Inaugural Address, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” actually received little reaction from the crowd. It was also during his first Inaugural Address that FDR proclaimed “This nation asks for action, and action now.” 3/4/33. In 1933, the 20th Amendment was passed to shorten the transition time between administrations. As a result, the official inaugural date was changed to January 20. Franklin D. Roosevelt became the last President to be sworn-in on March 4 for his first inauguration in 1933, and the first to take the oath on January 20 in 1937.
Richard Nixon takes the oath of office, administered by Chief Justice Warren Burger. 1/20/73.
This bible was used to swear-in Gerald R. Ford as Vice President and later as President. The black cover with gold text reads, “The Jerusalem Bible.” Shown below is the oath of office “cue card” used during the ceremony when Gerald R. Ford was sworn in as President. August, 1974.
George Bush reviews his speech at Blair House prior to his inauguration. A grandchild’s toy sits on the patio next to him. 1/20/89.
13. Draft of William J. Clinton’s Inaugural Address. The handwriting and editing marks on the page are President Clinton’s. The time stamp from this draft is 9:50am on the morning of inauguration day. 1/20/97.
14. Ronald Reagan gives the Inaugural Address from the U.S. Capitol. Before Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the 40th President, inaugural ceremonies at the U.S. Capitol faced eastward. When Ronald Reagan’s team from California came to scout the location, they immediately moved to switch the ceremony to the west side of the building. From the west vantage point, cameras could pan out to an open view of the National Mall and its monuments. Since then, every Presidential inauguration has taken place on the west front of the Capitol. 1/20/81.
John F. Kennedy’s reading copy of the Inaugural Address, page 13. On January 18, 1961, Ted Sorensen’s secretary typed a 14-page final version which was placed in a black three-ring binder. On the morning of January 20, Secret Service agents took the binder to the Capitol and placed it on President Kennedy’s seat. This is one of the pages President Kennedy read from at the lectern
16. Page two of the Reading Copy for George W. Bush’s second Inaugural Address. The underline marks were made by President Bush. 1/20/05.
Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter walk down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House during the 1977 Inaugural Parade. Jimmy Carter was the first President to exit the motorcade car to walk the parade. Since then, it has become a traditional part of the Inaugural Parade. 1/20/77.
18. Barack Obama pauses to look back at the scene before leaving the platform following the inaugural swearing-in ceremony at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Standing behind the President are First Lady Michelle Obama, daughters Malia and Sasha, and Marian Robinson. Official White House Photo. 1/21/13.

2 thoughts on “George Washington Writes in the Margins

  1. VERY interesting topic. However, whoever wrote some of it does not know the difference between ‘bring’ and ‘take.’ “After his two terms in office, Washington brought (should be took) the book home to Mount Vernon.” ” Last year, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association secured the book at an auction, bringing (should be taking) it back to George Washington’s home.” I’m disappointed that the author of such a prestigious publication as Prologue would not have correct grammar, considering that many well-educated individuals read it.

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