1789 Two Hundred Years Ago

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Even without public-opinion polls, most of the country already knew what the sixty-nine members of the Electoral College would unanimously decide on February 4: that George Washington would be the first President of the United States. With an affectionate farewell “to domestic felicity, and with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations,” Washington accepted the office.

The new President spent the next two months trying to put his finances in order and brooding about the “stupor or listlessness” of the new government. His election would not be official until the ballots were opened before the Congress, which was more than a month late in assembling in New York City. Further clouding Washington’s mind were the debts he faced after poor harvests at Mount Vernon the two previous years and a demand for back taxes on some land he owned in the Virginia wilderness. After the indignity of hearing that his credit was not considered good, he managed to borrow six hundred pounds at 6 percent interest to meet his most pressing debts and cover traveling expenses for his journey to New York. Determined to avoid further indebtedness, President Washington wrote his friend James Madison that in arranging lodgings he would be willing to “take rooms in the most decent tavern.”

January 21: The first American novel, an epistolary melodrama titled The Power of Sympathy , was published anonymously in Boston. Its author, William Hill Brown, was notable mainly for having written several stanzas to “Yankee Doodle” celebrating Massachusetts’s ratification of the Constitution. In his new book, Brown trumpeted, “the dangerous consequences of SEDUCTION are exposed, and the Advantages of FEMALE EDUCATION set forth and recommended.”

Despite its laudable ambitions, Brown’s story of a brother and sister drawn together by nature in ignorance of their relationship too overtly paralleled a recent scandal involving adultery and suicide in two prominent Boston families. One of the families was said to have bought and destroyed most of the copies of the novel, with the author’s approval. It was just as well. Despite the lurid subject matter, Brown’s book bored more people than it shocked and was largely ignored and even misattributed for most of the next century. When Brown died in 1793, at the age of twenty-eight, he was still better known as a poet than a novelist.