This Day in History: George Washington accepts the call to serve as President
On this day in 1789, George Washington leaves Mount Vernon. He is headed to New York, where he would be inaugurated as the first President of the United States. He was 57 years old.
In the wake of our own Easter celebrations, perhaps you will be glad to hear that Washington would have had the opportunity to celebrate Easter with his family just a few days earlier.
Washington’s diary entry for April 16 was simple: “I bade adieu to Mount Vernon, to private life, and to domestic felicity; and with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express, set out for New York . . . .”
Yet again, Washington would give up the comforts of his much-loved home so he could answer a call to public duty.
Soon after he left, Martha Washington wrote to her nephew: “I am truly sorry to tell that the General is gone to New York . . . when, or wheather he will ever come home again god only knows, - I think it was much too late for him to go in to publick life again, but it was not to be avoided, our family will be deranged as I must soon follow him.”
All along the way, grateful citizens greeted Washington. They hosted dinners for him, offered cannon salutes, presented him with addresses, or even accompanied him for part of his journey. Washington also wrote many letters to those who had hosted him along the way.
One of these was written to several elected officials in Philadelphia. The letter was typical Washington! He was humble, and he added a note of gratitude for divine intervention in American affairs. He wrote: “When I contemplate the Interposition of Providence, as it was visibly Manifested, in guiding us thro’ the Revolution in preparing us for the Reception of a General Government, and in conciliating the Good will of the People of America, towards one another after its Adoption, I feel myself oppressed and almost overwhelmed with a sence of the Divine Munificence . . . .”
About a week later, Washington finally arrived in New York. Washington’s diary entry records the scene: “[A] display of boats which attended and joined us on this occasion, some with vocal and some with instrumental music on board; the decorations of the ships, the roar of cannon, and the loud acclamations of the people which rent the skies, as I passed along the wharves, filled my mind with sensations as painful (considering the reverse of this scene, which may be the case after all my labors to do good) as they are pleasing.”
A newspaper reported that the shores were crowded “with a vast concourse of citizens, waiting with exulting anxiety his arrival.” Boats were “dressed and decorated in the most superb manner.” Other accounts note women waving handkerchiefs, throwing flowers, and shedding tears of joy. Streets were decorated with all manner of flags and wreaths. That evening, the Governor hosted a dinner party for Washington and the “houses of the citizens were brilliantly illuminated.”
In short, it was a tremendous celebration!
Washington may have wished that it were possible to decline the call to public service, but Americans were clearly very happy that he accepted the call to duty one last time.
Accepting the Presidency (George Washington's Mount Vernon)
Eyewitness account of Rudolph Von Dorsten, Secretary of the Dutch Legation in New York City (reprinted HERE)
George Washington, Diary entry (Apr. 16, 1789)
George Washington, Diary entry (Apr. 23, 1789)
Letter from Martha Washington to John Dandridge (April 20, 1789) (reprinted HERE)
Ron Chernow, George Washington: The Reluctant President: It seemed as if everyone rejoiced at the election of our first chief executive except the man himself (Smithsonian Mag; Feb. 2011)
Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (2010)
The Memorial History of the City of New-York: From Its First Settlement to the Year 1892 (James Grant Wilson ed. 1893) (Vol. 3)
Washington Irving, The Life and Times of Washington (1876)