George Washington’s reluctance to become president, 1789

A primary source by George Washington

George Washington to Henry Knox, April 1, 1789. (Gilder Lehrman Collection, From 1787 to 1789, as the Constitution was submitted for ratification by the states, most Americans assumed that George Washington would be the first president. In this April 1789 letter to General Henry Knox, his friend from the Continental Army who served as Secretary of War, Washington accepted the inevitability of his election to the presidency, but with remarkable reluctance. His tone suggests how precarious the future of America seemed to him. Just twenty-nine days later Washington would be inaugurated in the (then) capital, New York City, and would advise his fellow citizens that “the destiny of the Republican model of Government [is] staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”

A full transcript is available.



Mount Vernon April 1st. 1789

My dear Sir;

            The Mail of the 30th. brought me your favor the 23d. – For which, & the regular information you have had the goodness to transmit of the state of things in New York, I feel myself very much obliged, and thank you accordingly. –

            I feel for those Members of the new Congress, who, hitherto, have given an unavailing attendance at the theatre of business: – For myself, the delay may be compared to a reprieve; for in confidence I can assure you – with the world it would obtain little credit – that my movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied with 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 [inserted: & inclination] which is necessary to manage the helm. – I am sensible, that I am embarking the voice of my Countrymen and a good name of my own, on this voyage, but what returns will be made for them – Heaven alone can foretell. – Integrity & 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. – With best wishes for Mrs. Knox, & sincere friendship for yourself – I remain

                                    Your Affectionate
                                            Go: Washington

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