A vivid and powerful demonstration of the first things Washington wanted to say to the American people as president
This remarkable beginning section, the earliest known to have reached the market, shows Washington inaugurating the new government under the auspices of God; Most of the leaves given away are now lost; the surviving fragments are now principally in institutions; the location of many is unknown. Very few remain in private collections;...
This remarkable beginning section, the earliest known to have reached the market, shows Washington inaugurating the new government under the auspices of God; Most of the leaves given away are now lost; the surviving fragments are now principally in institutions; the location of many is unknown. Very few remain in private collections; With Sparks’ original letter sending it
After eight years leading the American war effort in the Revolution, and then presiding over the Constitutional Convention, George Washington was not seeking the presidency of the United States. He wanted to go home to his farm at Mount Vernon and pass his remaining years there. But duty and service meant everything to him, and knowing the call to the presidency was imminent, he reluctantly accepted the inevitability of his election. Between December 15, 1788 and January 10, 1789, the presidential electors were chosen in each of the states. On February 4, 1789, the Electoral College convened. With 69 electoral votes, Washington was unanimously elected. No other president since has come into office with a universal mandate to lead.
In January, just before the final selection of electors was complete, he began considering his inaugural address. Washington’s inaugural address would be the first address ever given by a United States President to his people. This was the dawn of everything.
He requested his wartime aide de camp Col. David Humphreys, who was serving as his private secretary and managing his correspondence, to draft a speech for him. Humphreys prepared a lengthy document, which Washington went over with care and revised; Washington then wrote out a copy in his own hand. That he was already working on his inaugural remarks in January was confirmed by James Madison, who told Jared Sparks that this was so.
Sparks was the editor of Washington’s papers, and Washington’s nephew Justice Bushrod Washington had given Sparks the originals of most Washington’s papers to perform his task. Sparks started work on his edition of Washington’s papers in 1829. He came across this draft first inaugural address document. As Sparks wrote Madison, “The letter dated Jany 1789, related to the Message to the First congress, and there is preserved with it the copy of a message, or as he calls it, a speech, in his own hand…The Speech, as copied by Washington, extends to seventy three pages, in which is included a short space for a prayer, that was to be introduced after the first paragraph. It is certainly an extraordinary production for a message to Congress…” In the end, Washington apparently considered the 73 page draft address unwieldy, and though it contained his first thoughts, did not use it. But there is, as a Washington scholar noted, an underlying similarity of thoughts rather than words between the two versions.
Sparks read over the 73 page draft, and compared it to the much shorter one actually delivered by Washington at his inauguration on April 30, 1789. He determined that very little of the first draft was finally used in the delivered address, and for that reason he came to the now indefensible conclusion that there was little merit in retaining the draft among the papers. Besieged by autograph seekers, Sparks cut the address in snippets of varying size and distributed them to those seeking a fragment of the revered first president’s handwriting. The surviving fragments are frequently accompanied by a notation by Sparks that they are genuine examples of Washington’s writing. Of the first draft, no complete copies in anyone’s hand have survived.
The 40-some surviving fragments of Washington’s “Undelivered First Inaugural Address” have been carefully assessed; they have been organized and paginated to the best of anyone’s ability by the George Washington Papers at the University of Virginia. We see that the very first things on Washington’s mind in the first draft of his first inaugural address were the favor of divine providence and the assumption of the reins of government by the American people. He began the speech: “We are this day assembled on a solemn and important occasion—not as a ceremony without meaning, but with a single reference to our dependence upon the Parent of all good—it becomes a pleasing commencement of my Office to offer my heart-felt congratulations on the happy [rest of sentence missing]. We are now to take upon ourselves the conduct of that government…”
A piece of one of America’s great lost historical documents
Most of these fragments are now in institutions; and the location of many is unknown. Very few remain in private collections, and this is the first we have ever carried. Partial autograph document, 1789, in the hand of Washington, originally on pages 1 and 1-3 in the assembled fragments. The recto reads, “not as a ceremony without meaning, but with a single reference to our dependence”, and contains a notation in Sparks hand “Washington’s handwriting. J.S.” The verso happily reads, “We are now to take upon ourselves the conduct of that government…”
This remarkable fragment both shows that Washington’s first thought in the address was his estimation that the endeavor of government was now being undertaken by Americans, that it was one shared by the entire nation, and that they did under the auspices of the divine creator.
Included is Sparks’s February 20 1857 letter to Rev. Smith incredulously referring to these Washington remnants as “scraps.” “I regret that I cannot furnish you with any autographs that will be interesting to your friend. I have had many, but the collectors have exhausted my stock. I enclose a scrap of Washington’s hand-writing, but am unable to supply a signature…”
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