- Historic Sites
The President’s Progress
Washington’s journey to his inauguration resembled a triumphal procession of royalty, but he felt like “a culprit who is going to the place of his execution”
June 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 4
On April 14, at about noon, Charles Thomson, who had been the secretary of the Continental Congress, stood at Mount Vernon’s door. After Washington had greeted his old friend, they walked together into the high-ceilinged banquet hall that was the most formal room available. The two men stood there, facing each other, in the quiet of a Virginia afternoon. Thomson made a little speech and then proffered a letter from John Langdon, president pro tempore of the Senate. Washington learned that he had been unanimously elected President of the United States: “Suffer me, Sir, to indulge the hope, that so auspicious a mark of public confidence will meet your approbation.”
Washington now read the brief contents of a paper he had prepared: “Whatever may have been my private feelings and sentiments,” he could not “give a greater evidence of my sensibility of the honor” done him by his “fellow-citizens … than by accepting the appointment.” He was conscious of his inability but would seek to do as much as could be “done by an honest zeal.” In order to keep no one waiting longer than was absolutely necessary, “I shall therefore be in readiness to set out the day after tomorrow.”
Concerning April 16, Washington wrote in his diary: About ten o’clock, I bade adieu to Mount Vernon, to private life, and to domestic felicity, and with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than 1 have words to express, set out for New York in company with Jr.. Thomson and Goio. Humphreys, with the best disposition to render service to my country in obedience to its calls, but with less hope of answering its expectations.
Since he believed that the future of the government depended tremendously on its acceptance by the people, Washington was much concerned about how his progress through the states to the capital would be received. But his first stop, Alexandria, was not so much a test for the future as a parting from the past.
His neighbors entertained him at a dinner studded with congratulatory toasts and affectionate speeches. He finally rose and made a brief acknowledgment, which ended:
All that now remains for me is to commit myself and you to the protection of that benilicent Being, who, on a former occasion lias happily brought us together, after a long and distressing separation. Perhaps the same gracious Providence will again indulge us with the same heartfelt felicity. But words, my fellow-citizens, fail me: Unutterable sensations must then be left to more expressive silence; while, from an aching heart, 1 bid you all, my affectionate friends and kind neighbours, farewell!
As Washington advanced beyond home ground, the explosion of enthusiastic strangers into his presence seemed all that the most ardent Federalist could have desired. There was a perpetual bowing and clanking beside his carriage. Delegations of local dignitaries awaited him at each town, and relays of horsemen, relieving each other every dozen miles or so, formed a continuous guard’ of honor. Washington could hardly sec the countryside, so thick were the clouds of dust thrown up by the many hooves. As an observer noticed, the dust settling on Washington’s clothes made it impossible to distinguish the true color of his coat or trousers.
In Baltimore, Washington was kept up late by an endless succession of toasts and speeches at a dinner. He was off at 5:30 the next morning, but that was not too early to be piped out of town by a roar of cannon and accompanied by another group of leading citizens on horseback. After seven miles, he alighted and managed to persuade this escort to go home. Then for two days, as he advanced through sparsely settled country, there were gaps in the chain of ceremony, and he could distinguish, in the smaller crowds that awaited him in towns, the emotional faces of soldiers he had last seen years before in bloody campaigns. But things warmed up again at Wilmington: another dinner, and horsemen who accompanied him to the Pennsylvania line where Pennsylvania horsemen were waiting, headed by the suavely smiling General Thomas Mifflin.
At Chester, some fifteen miles from Philadelphia, Washington alighted from his carriage and mounted a white horse. A parade of other horsemen gathered behind him. As lie advanced along the familiar road toward the Schuylkill River, he saw awaiting him at every crossroads a new detachment of riders. He would stop, the whole procession coming to a halt, for another round of ceremonial greetings. Then the newcomers fell in at the end of the ever lengthening line.
Finally there came into Washington’s view the pontoon bridge across the Schnylkill at Gray’s Ferry. It now resembled a grove of laurel and cedar growing out of the water. Green boughs hid all the woodwork, and, at either end, tall arches of laurel rose gaudy with banners and devices. Washington might have guessed (had he not been told) that this was the work of that indefatigably ingenious painter Charles Willson Peale. However, as he admired the effect, which according to one spectator “even the pencil of a Raphael could not delineate,” he could not guess all that Peale had in store for him.