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This Day in History: George Washington's Call to Service

On this day in 1789, George Washington receives a letter from his friend Henry Knox. The two had been awaiting the outcome of our country’s first presidential election.


Those results were supposed to be a secret, at least until the first Congress counted the electoral votes. Naturally, word got out anyway.


“It appears by the returns of elections hitherto obtained,” Knox wrote, “which is as far as Maryland southward that your Excellency has every vote for President.”

Washington didn’t want to go, but he placed his own feelings aside. Instead, he spent the month of March preparing himself—and Mount Vernon—for his anticipated long absence. On April 16, he finally departed for New York, where he would be inaugurated as the first President of the United States.


Washington’s diary entry for that day 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, offered cannon salutes, presented him with addresses, or even accompanied him for part of his journey. Washington also wrote letters to those who 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.

“When I contemplate the Interposition of Providence,” he wrote, “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 arrived in New York. His 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 . . . 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, a dinner party was held for Washington and the “houses of the citizens were brilliantly illuminated.”


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.


Where would this country be if he had made any other decision?

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