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Washington’s First Inaugural Address, 1789

Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.

Suggested Sequencing

  • Use this activity at the beginning of Chapter 4.


George Washington was unanimously elected the nation’s first president by the Electoral College on February 4, 1789. Washington was selected because he was the heroic, victorious general of the American Revolution and for his character. Because he had surrendered his military commission to the Congress, the American people believed Washington could be trusted with the power to be the new republic’s first chief executive. Washington had served the republic and wanted to retire in peace at Mount Vernon. When his countrymen called him to be the first president, he reluctantly answered the call. After composing a seventy-one–page inaugural address, Representative James Madison persuaded Washington to reduce its length significantly and focus on the political principles animating the new republic. On April 30, 1789, he took his constitutional oath of office on a balcony of New York’s Federal Hall before a crowd of citizens and dignitaries. The new president then delivered his first inaugural address to the Congress.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who was George Washington and to whom is he writing?
  2. What was Washington’s goal was for writing the piece?

Vocabulary Text
Fellow-Citizens of the Senate and of the House of Representatives:
vicissitude (n): circumstance, fortune

endowment (n): ability
Among the vicissitudes incident to life no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order, and received on the 14th day of the present month. On the one hand, I was summoned by my Country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love, from a retreat which I had chosen with the fondest predilection, and, in my flattering hopes, with an immutable decision, as the asylum of my declining years—a retreat which was rendered every day more necessary as well as more dear to me by the addition of habit to inclination, and of frequent interruptions in my health to the gradual waste committed on it by time. On the other hand, the magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most experienced of her citizens a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications, could not but overwhelm with despondence one who (inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpracticed in the duties of civil administration) ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies. . . .
supplication (n): humble request

providential (adj): involving divine foresight or intervention

benediction (n): blessing

auspiciously (adv): favorable, promising
It would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge. In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow-citizens at large less than either. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those [the people] of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency; and in the important revolution just accomplished in the system of their united government the tranquil deliberations and voluntary consent of so many distinct communities from which the event has resulted can not be compared with the means by which most governments have been established without some return of pious gratitude, along with an humble anticipation of the future blessings which the past seem to presage. These reflections, arising out of the present crisis, have forced themselves too strongly on my mind to be suppressed. You will join with me, I trust, in thinking that there are none under the influence of which the proceedings of a new and free government can more auspiciously commence. . . .
rectitude (n): morally correct behavior

immutable (adj): unchanging over time

maxim (n): truth or rule of conduct

magnanimous (adj): very generous

felicity (n): happiness
It will be more consistent with those circumstances, and far more congenial with the feelings which actuate me, to substitute, in place of a recommendation of particular measures, the tribute that is due to the talents, the rectitude, and the patriotism which adorn the characters selected to devise and adopt them. In these honorable qualifications I behold the surest pledges that as on one side no local prejudices or attachments, no separate views nor party animosities, will misdirect the comprehensive and equal eye which ought to watch over this great assemblage of communities and interests, so, on another, that the foundation of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality, and the preeminence of free government be exemplified by all the attributes which can win the affections of its citizens and command the respect of the world. I dwell on this prospect with every satisfaction which an ardent love for my country can inspire, since there is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature 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; since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards 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 model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.
inquietude (n): restlessness Besides the ordinary objects submitted to your care, it will remain with your judgment to decide, how far an exercise of the occasional power delegated by the fifth article of the Constitution is rendered expedient at the present juncture by the nature of objections which have been urged against the system, or by the degree of inquietude which has given birth to them. Instead of undertaking particular recommendations on this subject, in which I could be guided by no lights derived from official opportunities, I shall again give way to my entire confidence in your discernment and pursuit of the public good; for I assure myself that whilst you carefully avoid every alteration which might endanger the benefits of an united and effective government, or which ought to await the future lessons of experience, a reverence for the characteristic rights of freemen and a regard for the public harmony will sufficiently influence your deliberations on the question how far the former can be more impregnably fortified or the latter be safely and advantageously promoted. . . .
When I was first honored with a call into the service of my country, then on the eve of an arduous struggle for its liberties, the light in which I contemplated my duty required that I should renounce every pecuniary compensation. From this resolution I have in no instance departed; and being still under the impressions which produced it, I must decline as inapplicable to myself any share in the personal emoluments which may be indispensably included in a permanent provision for the executive department, and must accordingly pray that the pecuniary estimates for the station in which I am placed may during my continuance in it be limited to such actual expenditures as the public good may be thought to require.
conspicuous (adj): standing out, attracting attention

temperate (adj): showing moderation or self-restraint
Having thus imported to you my sentiments as they have been awakened by the occasion which brings us together, I shall take my present leave; but not without resorting once more to the benign Parent of the Human Race in humble supplication that, since He has been pleased to favor the American people with opportunities for deliberating in perfect tranquility, and dispositions for deciding with unparalleled unanimity on a form of government for the security of their union and the advancement of their happiness, so his divine blessing may be equally conspicuous in the enlarged views, the temperate consultations, and the wise measures on which the success of this Government must depend.

Comprehension Questions

  1. How does Washington express humility in the first paragraph of the speech?
  2. How does Washington see the hand of providence in the American Revolution and in the creation of the republic?
  3. What principles does Washington think are necessary for self-government?
  4. Why does Washington say the future of republican governments depends on American success?
  5. Why does Washington support amendments to the Constitution, or a Bill of Rights?
  6. Why did Washington refuse a salary? What virtue is he exhibiting?
  7. What are the objects of Washington’s final prayer for his country?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. What did Washington’s explicit ties of religion to the republican government say about his understanding and vision of the American republic and experiment in liberty?
  2. Why was George Washington elected president unanimously in 1788? Who else could have united the American people as the first president as Washington did?
  3. Why was George Washington reluctant to accept the presidency, considering his retirement in 1783 as commander in chief of the Continental Army?
  4. How do the reflections on republican principles compare with the Constitutional Convention, the Federalist Papers, and the Anti-Federalist essays?
  5. In Washington’s Circular to the States (June 14, 1783), he offered political advice about the importance of the national Union: “There are four things, which I humbly conceive, are essential to the well being, I may even venture to say, to the existence of the United States as an Independent Power: 1st. An indissoluble Union of the States under one Federal Head. . . 4thly. The prevalence of that pacific and friendly Disposition, among the People of the United States, which will induce them to forget their local prejudices and policies, to make those mutual concessions which are requisite to the general prosperity, and in some instances, to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the Community. These are the Pillars on which the glorious Fabrik of our Independency and National Character must be supported; Liberty is the Basis, and whoever would dare to sap the foundation, or overturn the Structure, under whatever specious pretexts he may attempt it, will merit the bitterest execration, and the severest punishment which can be inflicted by his injured Country.” In Washington’s “Farewell Address” (September 19, 1796), he wrote: “It is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national Union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual and immoveable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the Palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned, and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our Country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.” Why was George Washington such a consistent advocate for the importance of the national Union to the American people as they created the republic?
  6. Why did Washington and other Founders fear the American republic would collapse and fail? How did it reflect their understanding of human nature and the history of republics?
  7. How does Washington’s first inaugural address differ from the inaugural addresses of modern presidents? Why didn’t Washington include a list of legislative and policy recommendations and priorities?
  8. What was George Washington’s view of the constitutional role of the president in the national level of government?
  9. What were the general and specific priorities of President Washington and the First Congress?
  10. How did Washington shape the presidency and consciously establish precedents for the office?

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