The President’s Progress


Never was the election of a President so much a foregone conclusion and yet so tortuous in consummation. The Electoral College met on February 4, 1789, but its unanimous vote for Washington could not be official until the president of the Senate, temporarily elected for the purpose, opened the ballots in the presence of both houses. Congress was due to convene in New York on March 4. On the fifth, only eight senators and seventeen representatives —pitifully less than a quorum—had appeared.

As the most unpleasant season of the farming year moved slowly by, Washington waited at Mount Vernon in a frustration that was increased by the non-arrival of some promised grain seed, which prevented him from carrying out that year’s stage in his longrange plan for the rotation of crops. ”£500 would be no compensation,” he wrote, “for this disappointment.”

The continuing word was that legislators were dribbling into New York—now a senator, then a representative—but a quorum was still unachieved on March 30 when Knox notified Washington that the delay had already cost the new government the spring imposts, estimated at £300,000. Washington replied that he was sorry about the imposts but was more worried over “the stupor, or listlessness” being displayed by the men on whom the success of the Constitution would depend. The high-spirited anticipation he had so recently savored faded rapidly into such gloom that he wrote as darkly as he had ever written during the blackest hours of the Revolution:

My movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution: so unwilling am I, in the evening of a life nearly consumed in public cares, to quit a peaceful abode for an Ocean of difficulties, without that competency of political skill, abilities and inclination which is necessary to manage the helm.… Integrity and firmness is all I can promise; these, be the voyage long or short, never shall forsake me although I may be deserted by all men. For of the consolations which are to be derived from these (under any circumstances) the world cannot deprive me.

Washington was not cheered when lie faced up to the i’act that, H lie were not to leave debts behind him in Virginia, he would have “to do what I never expected to be reduced to the necessity of doing,” what, indeed, he regarded as the most disastrous of all steps for a farmer: borrowing money at interest. After he had finally steeled himself thus to raise more than a thousand pounds, he discovered to his dismay that his credit was not considered good enough. Businessmen were not willing to lend. Finally, he tried a personal connection, appealing to “the most monied man I was acquainted with.” But Charles Carroll of Carrollton also refused, explaining that he could not collect interest on the money he already had out on loan.

A wealthy inhabitant of Alexandria, Richard Conway, finally accommodated Washington to the extent of £500—at six per cent interest. The money in hand, Washington paid the most pressing of his debts and found there was nothing left. He had to beg from Conway another hundred pounds so that he could pay his expenses to New York and the Presidency.

The government of the United States being still unorganized, no way existed to supply a presidential residence. Governor George Clinton of New York, an old friend but a conspicuous Antifederalist, asked Washington to stay with him. Washington replied that it would be wrong “to impose such a burden on any private family”; he also put off Clinton’s request to be kept informed on when to expect Washington’s arrival. “No reception,” Washington explained, “can be so congenial to my feelings as a quiet entry devoid of ceremony.”

Applying to Madison, Washington wrote that if lodgings could not be hired which were “tolerably convenient (I am not very nice) I would take rooms in the most decent Tavern.” His mind surely running on his financial situation, he specified, “I am not desirous of being placed early in a situation for entertaining.” He was, however, eager “to conform to the public desire and expectation with respect to the style proper for the chief magistrate to live in,” and hoped that Madison would advise him concerning what the public wanted.

Washington made a quick trip to Fredericksburg to visit his eighty-two-year-old mother, who was now dying slowly and painfully of cancer of the breast. Then he returned to his waiting at Mount Vernon.

Martha made no secret of her bitterness at the impending destruction of her domestic life. She blamed fate, it is true, rather than her husband. She was willing to admit that he had to follow what his conscience told him was his duty. Washington did not push her any harder than was absolutely necessary. She would, of course, in the end have to apply her superlative social gifts to the role of First Lady; and Washington himself intended to set an example of promptness by starting out as quickly as possible after he had been notified that the government had certified his election. Martha, however, with Nelly and little Washington, could follow at their leisure.