“The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are . . . entrusted to the hands of the American people.”
George Washington’s inaugural address of 1789 was the first by an American president. Although the setting has changed through the years—Washington’s was given on Wall Street in New York City—every inauguration has featured a speech by the incoming president. Many of them have followed the same general pattern as Washington’s: a mixture of modesty, reflection on what has come before, and thoughts on what lies ahead. Knowing that there was great uncertainty about the new system, Washington tried to assure everyone that he did not want any more power than the Constitution gave him. Understanding the struggles through which the country had come, Washington had confidence that the various factions within the government would come together to find the “enlarged views” that would make the government and the nation successful.
Almost thirteen years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, and eight years after the Battle of Yorktown, in which the colonists defeated the British and ended the War of Independence, the United States was still struggling. Although foreign relations with Great Britain were not ideal, that external threat had subsided for the moment. The real threat to the existence of the United States was internal. The Articles of Confederation, the predecessor to the Constitution, had not resulted in a viable national government. A new Constitution had been written and was in the process of ratification by the thirteen states. Members of Congress had been chosen and electors from the states had selected George Washington to be the first president. Arriving in New York, the nation’s temporary capital, almost two months after his term should have begun, Washington was sworn into office. After a brief public ceremony, he went into the congressional chambers to deliver his inaugural address. He understood the importance of the situation, not just for his presidency or his legacy, but for the entire future of the nation.
Although Congress had been in session for almost a month, the appointive positions in the executive branch and members of the judiciary were yet to be nominated and confirmed by the Senate. All of this awaited the president’s taking office, truly marking the beginning of government under the Constitution. The United States Constitution is considered brief and spare in that many of the powers, at all levels, were laid out in only general terms. Thus, Washington had some flexibility in defining the office of president. Even the members of the Electoral College, all of whom had voted for Washington, did not fully know what he would do as president. The text of his first speech would be essential to making his intentions clear to the entire nation. The eight pages of his handwritten speech contain a call for those in the government to put the interests of the nation first. It contained a pledge that he would do his utmost to serve the people of the United States. He called for mutual respect of all citizens and harmony within the very diverse nation. Through this speech, Washington set the tone for all future presidents to follow as they entered the highest office in the land.
The son of Augustine and Mary Ball Washington, George Washington was born on February 22, 1732. His father died when Washington was eleven, so his older half-brother, Laurence, raised him on one of the family plantations, Mount Vernon, Virginia, which Washington later inherited.
Joining the Virginia militia as an officer, Washington’s first major assignment was to deliver a message from the British general to the French commander in what is now northwestern Pennsylvania. Washington took detailed notes of the trip and of the French forces and defenses. When this was published after his return, Washington was rapidly promoted. He participated in the French and Indian War, although he temporarily resigned from the militia to protest the difference in pay between British and American troops. From participating as an officer in the war Washington learned much regarding civilian-military relations, in addition to military tactics. Once the war moved beyond the Virginia colony, Washington resigned from the militia and entered politics. Elected to Virginia’s House of Burgesses in 1759, he served for fifteen years while operating his plantation. His objection to the double standard of giving the British advantages over the colonists was a major reason for his political activism.
Beginning in 1774, Washington represented Virginia at the Second Continental Congress, which declared the colonies’ independence from Great Britain. In 1775, he was appointed commander-in-chief of the American forces. From the successful battle to expel the British troops from Boston in 1776 to the campaign at Yorktown in 1781, Washington continually led the main forces in the northern part of the colonies. Although not successful in every battle, he ultimately prevailed, with a peace treaty recognizing the independence of the United States signed in 1783.
After the war, he resigned his commission, stayed out of politics, and enjoyed life on his plantation. However, the new nation was in need of Washington’s political leadership. In 1784, he hosted a meeting between leaders of Maryland and Virginia to develop a compact regarding navigation on the Potomac River, part of their mutual boundary. When it became clear that the Articles of Confederation were too weak to govern the United States, he was asked to lead Virginia’s delegation to the Constitutional Convention. Once there he was unanimously elected president of the convention.
When Congress convened in 1789 following the first presidential election, they received the results of the votes by the electors of the various states, showing that Washington was unanimously elected as the first president of the United States. During his two successful terms in office, he worked hard to establish a system of government that would endure. Refusing to be considered for a third term, Washington retired to Mount Vernon in March 1797. After a brief illness, he died on December 14, 1799.
George Washington opened his first term as president of the United States with an inaugural address that laid out his approach to this new task given him by his country. While his introduction and conclusion should not be ignored, the heart of his address dealt with the issues facing the new Congress and the new president. In the nearly six-year period since the Treaty of Paris was signed, recognizing the independence of the United States, the new country had struggled to remain united. Two years prior to Washington’s inauguration, the Constitutional Convention had been called to create a more effective system of government. Seven months prior, enough states had ratified the Constitution to begin its implementation. Washington was standing before the members of Congress who were waiting with great anticipation to hear what he had to say. The Constitutional Convention had tried to seek a way to truly unify the thirteen states by writing a Constitution that put more power in the hands of the federal government and only a few powers in the hands of the states, the opposite approach of the failed Articles of Confederation. The challenge that faced Washington was how to execute the statutes put forth by the Constitution and gain the support of the fiercely independent states. How could the new government overcome “local prejudices” and be unified? This was the task before Washington and Congress, and this was the tone that Washington needed to set as he started his first term.
Washington began his speech with an affirmation that he understood the magnitude of the current situation. For one so familiar with the battlefield, who had commanded a desperate army searching for a way to defeat a major European power, he affirmed the tremendous challenge facing him by stating, “No event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order.” Although as the result of his earlier leadership, he knew to expect the call to be president, Washington still had to prepare himself for the challenges that lay ahead. In the time between the end of large-scale fighting in 1781 and the signing of the peace treaty in 1783, some within the army offered to support any move he might want to make to become king of the United States. He had refused that offer, but now had been made president—not the king, but the leader nonetheless—of the nation. This speech had to establish the precedent of a republican leader of a strong central government, while at the same time not claiming for himself or Congress more power than was appropriate under the Constitution. This was the challenge of the situation in which he found himself.
Having served Virginia and the united colonies for most of his adult life, Washington declared that in this new phase of the history of the United States he could not refuse another call to service. Since Washington was the only US president who did not campaign for office, his humility was sincere. The country had sought him out; he was “summoned” by his country, who, he states, he could never hear “but with veneration and love.” Yet, his hesitation to accept the presidency is evident. He spoke of his “fondest predilection,” the desire to continue his retirement at Mount Vernon. Fifty-seven was not an exceptionally old age, but his health was failing him. Although he did not explicitly refer to the hardships he had experienced, he said that his health had a “gradual waste committed on it by time.” He went on to comment that any person, even the person with the greatest skills for governing, would question their ability to meet such a call, and that he was far from the most qualified person for the position. Although he admitted to having some experience that would assist him as leader of the new nation, throughout the opening paragraph he is continually modest, and hopes for success even as he wondered if the electors did not take into consideration his limitations and inexperience at this level of government. But even with these uncertainties, Washington proclaimed that he would accept the call. And if he failed, he hoped that Congress would remember that he took the position to serve his country, and not to serve his own interests.
Washington opened the second paragraph of his speech with a statement of thanks to God for the blessings that had brought the nation to this point in history. The religious beliefs of many of the Founding Fathers, including Washington, have been the subject of great debate, especially in recent years. Some have tried to prove that many of the Founders were not Christians at all, while others have asserted that the Founders’ beliefs were devoutly Christian.
In this paragraph and the closing one, Washington made it clear that he was not on either extreme. Those who would call him a deist (one who believed that God’s only action was the creation of the universe, which he then left alone) should be able to clearly see in this passage, as well as in other speeches and writings, that Washington saw God as “the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men.” Thus, as with other members of the Anglican/Episcopalian church, Washington believed that God was active in the world and had blessed the people of the United States by the creation of the new nation. Washington said it would have been wrong not to give thanks to God, “that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe.”
On the other hand, Washington does not refer to Jesus in this speech, and rarely did in any public speech or writing. Thus, when he gave his “pious gratitude” to God, Washington did not use the type of personal language for God that many Christians would use in similar circumstances. As a believer in God, Washington gave thanks, and as a political leader he did not think it inappropriate to do so in the context of an official speech. However, his neutral tone reflected not only his personal faith, but his desire for religious tolerance in the new nation as well.
Within Washington’s thanksgiving to God, he outlined some of the unusual steps that had occurred in the creation of the new nation and this new system of government. He reminded the members of Congress that it was the people as a whole who created “a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes.” He stated that while the “providential agency” (God) had been with them throughout the process, it had been a united effort of the people that had allowed the new nation to reach its goal of a “free Government.” For Washington, unity was key. The advancement was only possible because of the “voluntary consent of so many distinct communities.” Unity allowed the constitutional system of government to develop peacefully, unlike the “means by which most Governments have been established.” By this, he meant the hereditary monarchies that were more common in the eighteenth century.
He was optimistic about the future and believed that the past predicted the possibilities of the future. Washington told the members of Congress, and indirectly the population of the United States, that the blessings of this new form of government were the best possible foundation upon which to build the future.
Moving on to specifics, Washington discussed the duties of the executive branch. He clearly understood his responsibilities in making proposals to Congress regarding various issues before the national government. However, he had decided that since this was a ceremonial occasion, he would not make a series of specific requests regarding legislation for what might be considered day-to-day issues. This he would do later. In place of outlining specifics, Washington focused on some of the general issues that would confront him and Congress. He once again called for unity within the nation and the government. In the process of ratifying the Constitution, the Federalist and Anti-Federalist factions had crystallized throughout the country. While most members of Congress represented those in favor of the strong federal system that was being implemented, a minority were elected because of their Anti-Federalist views that emphasized states’ rights. Rather than focusing on the political debates that had preceded the election of the members of Congress, Washington lifted up the qualities that he believed were in all members of Congress. Thus, he stated that he wanted to pay homage to the “talents, the rectitude, and the patriotism” that were found in all the members of Congress. While he was probably sincere in making this statement, it was also an attempt to unify the Congress, since the political process required Congress to pass the laws that Washington proposed.
The second general point Washington made was that Congress was to serve the United States of America. No secondary attributes should come before the desire to create and sustain a truly democratic government. After his previous appeal to lawmakers’ individual characteristics, Washington made a pledge that he would work for the nation, and asked members of Congress to act in a similar fashion. He listed the two most common barriers to cooperation at that time: rivalries among the states and differences of opinion between the emerging political factions. Rather than create legislation based on what Washington saw as negative qualities, he asked Congress to build the new system of government based on “the pure and immutable principles of private morality; and the pre-eminence of a free Government.” In doing so, Washington asserted that the citizens living under this new system of government would proclaim its goodness and other nations would see its integrity and accept the new system of government. Washington’s belief that personal morality and a good and successful government were closely related was in line with many political thinkers of his day.
Washington then proceeded to list what he considered dualities of truth and the challenge that confronted the American people and their system of government. He stated that he was certain and fully satisfied that the new nation could live out these truths and meet the challenges before it. He said, “There is no truth more thoroughly established, than . . . 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.” In other words, living a moral life brings forth happiness; doing one’s duty creates opportunities; open and honest government allows for generosity; all of which combine to create well-being and happiness in all parts of the society. These are maxims in which Washington truly believed, ones that he sought to have members of Congress follow. He also believed that if all citizens of the United States followed these guidelines, then God’s blessings would assist the nation in doing great things.
Washington understood that the entire world was watching this new nation and its experimental government. If the nation’s republican form of government succeeded, others might follow its example, whereas if the United States failed in its experiment, democracy in that form might not survive. The challenge before the nation, and especially before Congress, was the “preservation of the sacred fire of liberty.” This belief in America’s special role in the world has long been a part of its heritage and often its foreign policy.
In the next paragraph Washington took on one the major issue dividing the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. Although promises had been made to secure the ratification of the Constitution, it was now time for action. Washington referred to the Fifth Article of the Constitution, the article that deals with amendments. The major complaint that Anti-Federalists had concerning the Constitution was that it did not place sufficient limits on the power of the central government—the same issue that led to the American Revolution. In addition, the Constitution did not explicitly guarantee the basic rights of the states or their citizens. Washington indicated his support for changes to the Constitution, but did not try to direct the members of Congress in the specific changes that were to be made, probably because the US president does not have a role to play in amending the Constitution; constitutional amendments are a matter between Congress and the state governments. However, by mentioning the need for additional civil rights, Washington was urging the Congress to add such amendments as quickly as was practical. These must include “reverence for the characteristic rights of freemen, and a regard for public harmony.” Washington asserted that a balance between those two ideals must be reached. Often reminding them of this charge, left over from the campaign for ratification, he stated that he was confident they would deal with this matter in an “expedient” manner.
In the next to last paragraph, Washington addressed the House of Representative regarding something unique to him. This was financial compensation. Throughout his previous service to the colonies, Washington had refused to draw a salary. He had land in Virginia and a plantation, which had been run by his family during his time of service. Even so, the donation of his time and talents meant that he was less financially secure than would have been the case if he had worked full-time on his plantation. Nonetheless, he desired to do the same while he served as president. He did not want people thinking he was using service to the country as a way of getting rich. He addressed this concern to the House, because under the Constitution, all bills appropriating money for expenditure had to originate in the House. He understood that in developing a budget for the United States, Congress had to establish “a permanent provision for the Executive Department.” However, while he served as President, he requested the House only appropriate money to cover “actual expenditures,” expenses having to do specifically with the office of the president.
As in the earlier passage of his speech, Washington closed with a statement of thanksgiving to God, as well as a remembrance of the steps that had been taken by the American people to reach their present situation. Washington believed that a part of this blessing had been the ability of the people’s representatives to peacefully and rationally develop the constitutional system. The previous system of government, the Articles of Confederation, had been put together in the midst of the Revolutionary War, a war fought because the British withheld from the colonies powers of self-government or representation in Parliament. Fearing a strong central government that might usurp power as the British did, the Articles created a very weak central government. Washington spoke positively of the fact that the Constitution was only possible because of the “opportunities for deliberating in perfect tranquility.” Through this unique opportunity, Washington was certain that the nation had created a system giving “security of their Union and the advancement of their happiness.” He closed with the admonition that everyone in the new government must work for the country as a whole, through “temperate consultations” that will ensure “success.” Washington was certain that this new system being inaugurated with him would truly fulfill the Preamble to the Constitution, with implementation leading to “a more perfect union.”
Washington set a precedent, which all presidents have followed, of giving an inaugural address. Although his was shorter than most, it was arguably the most significant because it laid out the most important issues that his administration and the nation as a whole would face for decades to come. Again, this is the norm for inaugural speeches. In Washington’s first term, even more important than legislation establishing the operations of the government, was the need for assurances to the citizens of the new nation regarding their civil rights. Washington strongly urged Congress to take up this issue, and the result was what is known as the Bill of Rights. These first ten amendments to the Constitution have served the nation well and their adoption ended most of the disagreements over whether to have a federal system of government. Political disputes then became focused on policies and implementation. Washington’s strong desire was for the Congress to complete what the Constitutional Convention had started. The stress he laid on this point made it perhaps more important than any other set out in his inaugural speech.
In addition to his belief in the need for a Bill of Rights, Washington was also successful in demonstrating his personal beliefs the nation’s future, based on its successes in the past decade or so. He thought it was almost miraculous that the colonies had come together as states in the new democratic federal system of government. His assertion was that “every step” on the way could be seen as guided by a force greater than human intellect. The idea of “one out of many” rang true to Washington. Because of this, he indicated that he believed the future was assured. During his presidency, his certainty inspired many who had more mixed feelings about the path from thirteen colonies to the new, restructured United States. Even though there were divisions within his administration, and Congress did not automatically give him everything he requested, Washington’s certainty about the near and long-term future gave stability to the new system, which it otherwise would have lacked. Although he did not use the twentieth-century term “American exceptionalism,” Washington did believe that the United States had a special role to play in the world. His belief that the United States carried “the sacred fire of liberty” rang true for many. The democratic example of the United States helped inspire many others in Europe and the Americas to follow suit.
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