President George Washington’s Original Address to the U.S. Senate, Delivered in Person to John Adams and All the Senators: The Nation Is Prosperous, and His Zeal For the Public Good Will Be Unrelenting

In his official and hand-held reply to the Senate’s praise of his State of the Union Address, he cites the difficulty of the task before them.

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An extraordinary rarity, perhaps the only hand-held speech delivered by Washington in private hands; One of the most significant documents of Washington as President to reach the market

Article 2, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution requires the President to periodically give Congress information on the “state of the union”, and all...

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President George Washington’s Original Address to the U.S. Senate, Delivered in Person to John Adams and All the Senators: The Nation Is Prosperous, and His Zeal For the Public Good Will Be Unrelenting

In his official and hand-held reply to the Senate’s praise of his State of the Union Address, he cites the difficulty of the task before them.

An extraordinary rarity, perhaps the only hand-held speech delivered by Washington in private hands; One of the most significant documents of Washington as President to reach the market

Article 2, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution requires the President to periodically give Congress information on the “state of the union”, and all presidents have complied. Presidents George Washington and John Adams delivered theirs in person, before Thomas Jefferson started the practice of sending written messages. On January 8, 1790, Washington delivered his first State of the Union Address to Congress, and on December 9, 1790 gave his second. Each time, the two branches of Congress replied to him separately, and the President in turn did likewise to those responses.

The first day of the first session of the Second Congress was October 24, 1791, when both the Senate and House of Representatives achieved quorums. A joint committee consisting of Senators Ralph Izard and John Langdon and Congressmen William Loughton Smith, John Laurance, and Alexander White waited on President Washington to inform him of the legislature’s readiness to receive any communication he might be pleased to make. Washington proposed to meet the two houses the next day at noon. Attended by his department secretaries, including Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, the President proceeded to the Senate Chamber in Congress Hall at the appointed time on October 25 and delivered his annual address to both houses of Congress assembled there.

In his speech, he warmly greeted the assembled Congress and pointed out that the nation was growing in accomplishments and prosperity, giving the credit in part to the new U.S. Constitution. “Fellow Citizens of the Senate, and of the House of Representatives. I meet you, upon the present occasion, with the feelings which are naturally inspired by a strong impression of the prosperous situation of our common Country, and by a persuasion equally strong, that the labors of the Session, which has just commenced, will, under the guidance of a spirit no less prudent than patriotic, issue in measures, conducive to the stability and increase of national prosperity. Numerous as are the Providential blessings which demand our grateful acknowledgments—the abundance with which another year has again rewarded the industry of the Husbandman, is too important to escape recollection. Your own observations, in your respective situations, will have satisfied you of the progressive state of Agriculture—Manufactures—Commerce and Navigation: In tracing their causes, you will have remarked, with particular pleasure, the happy effects of that revival of confidence, public as well as private, to which the Constitution and laws of the United States have so eminently contributed: And you will have observed, with no less interest, new and decisive proofs of the increasing reputation and credit of the Nation…”

Relating to the Indians, he stated: “It is sincerely to be desired, that all need of coercion, in future, may cease; and that an intimate intercourse may succeed; calculated to advance the happiness of the Indians, and to attach them firmly to the United States….” Concerning the Whiskey Rebellion, he continued, “It is desirable, on all occasions, to unite with a steady and firm adherence to constitutional and necessary Acts of Government, the fullest evidence of a disposition, as far as may be practicable, to consult the wishes of every part of the community, and to lay the foundations of the public Administration in the affection of the people.”

He then proceeded to report on the establishment of Washington, DC: “Pursuant to the authority contained in the several Acts on that subject—a district of ten miles square for the permanent Seat of the Government of the United States, has been fixed, and announced by proclamation, which district will comprehend lands on both sides of the River Potomac,1 and the towns of Alexandria and George-town. A City has also been laid out agreeably to a plan which will be placed before Congress: And as there is a prospect, favored by the rate of sales which have already taken place, of ample funds for carrying on the necessary public buildings, there is every expectation of their due progress. On the census: “The completion of the Census of the Inhabitants, for which provision was made by law, has been duly notified…and the returns of the officers who were charged with this duty, which will be laid before you, will give you the pleasing assurance, that the present population of the United States borders on four millions of persons.” He then asked for an immediate establishment of a U.S. Mint, and concluded by requesting that Western lands be offered for sale to the American people: “A provision for the sale of the vacant lands of the United States is particularly urged, among other reasons, by the important considerations that they are pledged as a fund for reimbursing the public debt; that if timely and judiciously applied they may save the necessity of burdening our Citizens with new taxes for the extinguishment of the principal; and that being free to discharge the principal but in a limited proportion, no opportunity ought to be lost for availing the public of its right.”

After Washington retired the houses separated. The Senate ordered the speech printed and appointed Aaron Burr, George Cabot, and Samuel Johnston a committee to draft a suitable reply. The House committed the speech to a Committee of the Whole, which considered it on October 26. After it was read, Cong. John Vining moved a resolution “That it is the opinion of this Committee that a respectful Address ought to be presented by the House of Representatives to the President of the United States, in answer to his Speech to both Houses of Congress at the commencement of this session, containing assurances that this House will take into consideration the various and important matters recommended to their attention.” Laurance, Smith, and James Madison were appointed a committee to draft the address. The final statement to the President, after much debate in the House, was somewhat restrained.

On October 27 Senator Aaron Burr reported from the committee appointed two days earlier to prepare an address in answer to Washington’s speech to Congress. The next day the Senate considered and accepted the committee’s address, which was unreservedly complimentary of the President and stated that he was setting a good example for all to emulate: “The Senate of the United States have received with the highest satisfaction the assurance of public prosperity contained in your Speech to both Houses: the multiplied blessings of providence have not escaped our notice or failed to excite our gratitude. The benefits which flow from a restoration of public and private confidence are conspicuous and important and the pleasure with which we contemplate them is heightened by your assurance of those further communications which shall confirm their existence and indicate their source… We participate the hope that the present prospect of a general peace, on terms of moderation and justice, may be wrought into complete and permanent effect, and that the measures of Government may equally embrace the security of our frontiers and the general interests of humanity; our solicitude to obtain, will ensure our zealous attention, to an object so warmly espoused by the principles of benevolence, and so highly interesting to the honor and welfare of the nation. The several subjects which you have particularly recommended and those which remain of former Sessions will engage our early consideration; we are encouraged to prosecute them with celerity and steadiness by the belief, that they will interest no passion, but that for the general welfare, by the assurance of concert and by a view of the arduous and important arrangements which have been already accomplished. We observe, Sir, the constancy and activity of your zeal for the public good. The example will animate our efforts to promote the happiness of our Country”.

The Senate then ordered that the address be presented in person by Vice President John Adams as President of the Senate, attended by the full Senate, and that Burr’s committee should inquire of Washington when and where he desired to receive it. Burr reported on October 31 that the President had requested its transmittal at noon the same day at the presidential mansion. The Annals of Congress reports: “Whereupon, the Senate waited on the President of the United States at his own house, and the Vice President, in their name, communicated to him the Address agreed to on the 28th instant.”

“This manifestation of your zeal for the honor and the happiness of our Country, derives its full value from the share which your deliberations have already had in promoting both. I thank you for the favorable sentiments with which you view the part that I have borne in the arduous trust committed to the Government of the United States; and desire you to be assured that all my zeal will continue to second those further efforts for the public good…”

The Annals of Congress further states that “The President was pleased to make the following reply.” This is that very reply to the Senate, believed by us and Washington scholars to be his hand-held reading copy. Letter signed, Philadelphia, October 31, 1791, praising the happiness of the country, the Senate’s efforts in making that happiness possible, the difficulty of the task they all had before them, his own gratitude for the credit the Senate had given him, and promising that his zeal for the public good would be unrelenting. “This manifestation of your zeal for the honor and the happiness of our Country, derives its full value from the share which your deliberations have already had in promoting both. I thank you for the favorable sentiments with which you view the part that I have borne in the arduous trust committed to the Government of the United States; and desire you to be assured that all my zeal will continue to second those further efforts for the public good, which are ensured by the spirit in which you are entering on the present session.” After receiving this Address, the Senate returned to its chamber. The text of the letter is in the hand of Bartholomew Dandridge, Jr., Washington’s nephew.

The text of this letter has been known to history because it was included in Washington’s clerical letterbook. No other draft in Washington’s hand or additional retained, signed original is known to exist. Many years back, The George Washington Library at Mount Vernon wrote of this piece that very few such documents were in private hands.  Even fewer would be today, if any, making this a great rarity.

Back in 1992, The Papers of George Washington said of this original letter, “…very few documents of this category are in private hands.” That is true, but if anything an understatement. We have never before seen a letter of George Washington to the Senate (or House for that matter) relating to his Constitutionally-required State of the Union messages, nor one to either with such inspirational language. A search of public sale records going back forty years fails to disclose any either.

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