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First Inaugural Address

First Inaugural Address 1789

On February 4, 1789, the Electoral College elected Washington as the first President of the United States. As with his selection as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army by the Second Continental Congress and his election as president of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, the vote was unanimous. On April 16, Washington wrote to his neighbors in Alexandria, Virginia, explaining his acceptance of the presidency as driven in part by "an ardent desire...to be instrumental in conciliating the good will of my countrymen towards each other." This desire recalls Washington's Circular Letter to the States of 1783, in which he pressed the importance of cultivating a public character by which Americans might transcend local interests for the sake of a general good. As president he will be in a position to begin to cultivate this character through his speeches.

Washington delivered the first presidential address-his First Inaugural Address -before both houses of Congress on April 30, 1789, at Federal Hall in New York City. He began by recounting his reluctance to re-enter public life, expressing doubts about his qualifications for such high office, and appealing to God for continued blessings on the nation. He then entered upon one of the greatest passages in the history of presidential rhetoric. Instead of presenting Congress with a list of particular policy recommendations, he says, he will speak of "the talents, the rectitude, and the patriotism" of the people's elected representatives. These virtues, as opposed to "local prejudices or attachments" and "party animosities," are the best insurers of good decision-making. Thus will "the foundations of our national policy...be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality." Washington dwells on this topic, he says, because "there is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity: since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the external rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained...."

The "external rules of order and right" of Washington's First Inaugural are synonymous with the "laws of nature and of nature's God" of the Declaration of Independence. Government acting in accordance with these objective laws will respect the rights of its citizens, whose lives will thereby tend toward prosperity and happiness. But all these good things depend on the private virtues of the people's representatives, and ultimately of the people who elect them. Washington would return to this theme eight months later, in his First Annual Message to Congress, discussing the legitimate and necessary government function of educating the people "to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness-cherishing the first, avoiding the last...."

Washington is widely admired for his character and viewed as a man of action. But in his speeches are found a deep understanding of the importance of character, and of the virtues necessary to preserve a free, constitutional republic.