Reluctant First, First Lady

Martha Washington, center left, did not actually arrive in New York until a month after George’s inauguration on April 30, 1789, so she would have had no reason to be jealous of the woman in the multi-toned brown gown. Frankly if she’d been the jealous sort, life would have been difficult since women on both sides of the Atlantic had a crush on George, perhaps for his military fame or his height, over 6 foot, head and shoulders above most 18th century men. He’d perfected his dancing ability and rarely sat out in any type of music, leading out each dance, finishing long after Martha had taken a seat. She had one consolation: she knew who’d be next to her on the carriage ride home.

An understatement—to say that Martha Washington did not want to move to New York to assume the role of American Hostess-in-Chief. If people wanted to come to her home, fine, she would serve them dutifly, but to move once again after eight years away from home during the Revolution, no, it wsnt what she wanted to do. She remembered the days when she lied part of the year in military camps during the eight-year American Revolution. While she knew the accommodations might be nicer in New York, the strain on her time and her husband’s time would be even greater. No one had done this job before, so no one could provide a roadmap.

Even George, despire the draw of the position, was not anxious to become America’s first President. He knew the job would be as great a struggle as the battles already fought, being called upon to set legal, political, domestic, and moral precedent for a nation not yet on solid ground–more like a baby reaching out to be held and taught, and even loved. George wasn’t the emotional kinda guy, which might have been why some thought he’d be perfect for the job because he could see situations with clear, fresh eyes.

Because of his success as a military leader, many even today do not consider George’s prior political experience. He started in 1758, prior to his courtship of Martha, by running for the Virginia House of Burgesses when he thought he had a better than average chance. George was at home recovering from a variety of maladies that might have reduced a less ambitious man. By twenty-six George had survived smallpox, pleurisy, malaria, and dysentery. (1)

His main opponent for the House of Burgesses, Thomas Swearingen, found himself diminished in the eyes of the voters because the Frederick (VA) division he led did poorly in battle. Washington lined up his supporters outside Winchester, where voting took place. His former military aide, who talked himself into Virginia’s governor’s mansion after the Revolution, General Lighthorse Harry Lee, joined Washington’s voters. According to historian Chernow, legally landowners could moitor how their tenants voted as they stepped forward to announce their votes, which were recorded by clerks. In 1755 Washington went down to defeat (40 votes) to Thomas Swearingen (270) and Hugo West (271), but came back in 1758 to beat Swearingen, whose Frederick brigade had been defeated in battle. (2) He left for the French and Indian War before taking his seat.

Washington Steps into the Fray

By August 1774 George stepped into the Political Big Leagues when he is elected one of seven Virginia delegates to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, then becomes chairman. He department on the 30th with his manservant, Billy Lee, along with delegates Patrick Henry and Edmund Pendleton. Martha appeared ready for the sacrifices ahead and knew the mind of her husband when she spoke from the door: “I hope you will stand firm–I know George will.” (3)

In Philadelphia Washington sensed the mood that independence from Britain would not be the first order of business, “I am well satisfied that no such thing is desired by any thinking man in North America, on the contrary, that it is the ardent wish of the warmest advocates for liberty that peace and tranquility, upon constitutional grounds, may be restored and the horrors of civil discord prevented.” (4)

In the intervening months and year Parliament and the once-thought-caring-father British King George, showed a more mercenary bent. He through Parliament levied heavy taxes on a variety of essential goods, like tea, ordered American sailors kidnapped off U.S. ships to serve in the British navy, and disrespected Colonists at every turn. Britain wrote the book on what “not” to do to Colonists, then expected undying devotion. A once-docile people turned against King George and his cruelty.

During the Continental Congress George certainly acted like a candidate for President, even if the public hadn’t time to realize it. He attended services at the Presbyterian, Quaker, Roman Catholic, and a pair of Anglican churches. He dined at no less than thirty-one private homes in two months and met nearly every night at a tavern were “select gentlemen” met to “pass a few hours in the pleasures of conversation and a cheerful glass.” (5) Not unlike a Congress that meets mid-week in Washington, their spouses back in their districts tending to home and business, so nothing impedes their discussions or in the case of the Founders forces them to abandon the tavern at an early hour. The workload of Congressional committee members advances as the country matures and expands along with the issues to be addressed.

New York: First President’s Inaugural

Initially the Washingtons lived at 3 Cherry Street, New York, N.Y. in a three-story brick residence in the then fashionable northeast section of the city, a block from the East River at the time. (All that remains is a plaque under the side of the Brooklyn Bridge commenorating the location. The residence came down in 1856.) (6)

The week prior to the inaugural Washington shared a seventy-three page document with James Madison, suggesting it to be his inaugural address, including many “suggestions” for Congress. Madison, then a member of the House, explained these ideas would be better discussed individually or could be interpreted as offering undo influence (to say nothing of the fact that the entire audience would long have retired after a small percent of his address met the audience’s ears. Madison rewrote the three-page address that Washington gave to the joint session of Congress after his swearing in on April 30, 1789.

(The Confederation Congress established March 4 as the date for the President’s Inaugural, but inclement weather along the East Coast prevented the election and delayed Washington’s inauguration. Congress voted to change the date to January 20 after modern transportation made travel easier and quicker. The inauguration in 1937 marked the first to occur on January 20.)

Washington’s inauguration took place on the second floor balcony of Federal Hall, which had served for years as New York’s City Hall at Wall and Nassau streets. Architect Pierre-Charles L’Enfant, who would later lay out the Nation’s Capital in Washington, worked his magic on the building creating separate rooms in which the House and Senate would convene. It was in the latter that Washington spoke. New York’s rumor mill buzzed all week about the two hundred workmen who were frantically rushed to complete the building in time. Just a few days before the event the golden eagle was hoisted into position onto the pediment to complete the building. (7)

An important note setting Americans apart from the British monarchy. Members of Congress rose as Washington entered the Senate chamber, but immediately sat after rising in respect to the office. In Britain Parliament then remained stading throughout the speech.

Washington began with words of humility for his selection, then noted the “shared responsibility” of the president and the Congress to preserve “thesacred fire of liberty” and the “republican form of government.” He expressed his belief (or Madison’s belief?) that the nation’s advances as an independent nation through tranquil measures have been “distinguished by some token of providential agency.” Washington gave credit to the “talents, the rectitude, and the patriotism which adorn the characters selected to devise and adopt” the Great Constitutional Charter under which the group assembled, “efining their powers and the objectives to which your attention is to be given.” (8)

The first president’s message to the patriots of 1789 could encourage the American people to work together to make the “experiment” work:

“Since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that regards 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 nodel of Government, are justly considered as deeply, parhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.” (9)

Washington expressed concern that in amending the Constitution future generations consider alterations “which might endanger the benefits of an (sp) United and effective government or , , , await the future lessons of experience: a reverence for the characteristic rights of freemen, and a regard for the public harmony…” (10)

(1) Ron Chernow, George Washington, (New York: Penguin Group, 2010) p. 75.

(2) Chernow, p. 67

(3) Patricia Brady, Martha Washington, (New York: The Penguin Group, 2005) p. 92

(4) Writing from Philadelphia during the Continental Congress to his friend Robert McKenzie in Boston, October 9, 1774. John Rhodehamel, ed., George Washington Writings, (New York: 1997, p. 160.

(5) Washington Dairies, 3: 285.

(6) Chernow, p. 564.

(7) Chernow, p. 567.


(9) (10) Ibid.

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