George Washington's Presidency

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What were the key themes of George Washington's 1789 Inaugural Address?

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Two main themes characterized the April 30, 1789 inaugural address of President George Washington. The first major theme of Washington’s address involved the role he and others of the nation’s Founders ascribed to a Supreme Being. Washington’s speech was dominated by references to the influence of God in the newly-established nation’s guiding document, the Constitution. The other major theme involved Washington’s reluctance to serve his nation as its first chief executive. Washington had anticipated, upon the end of the Revolutionary War and the establishment of a republican form of government, his retirement to his estate in Virginia. Washington’s humility is evident throughout his address, as when he discusses his aborted plans for retirement amid the call of the public to serve as president:

 “On the one hand, I was summoned by my Country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love, from a retreat which I had chosen with the fondest predilection, and, in my flattering hopes, with an immutable decision, as the asylum of my declining years . . . On the other hand, the magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my Country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most experienced of her citizens, a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications, could not but overwhelm with dispondence, one, who, inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpracticed in the duties of civil administration, ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies.”

George Washington has historically been considered the reluctant president precisely because he was so deeply imbued by a sense of distinction between his role as military leader and the constitutional prerogatives of the presidency. He hoped to eschew the trappings of office because those trappings could, he recognized, be intoxicating and inconsistent with the notion of the chief executive as but one of several branches of government. That is why, in his final comments, he takes time to mention his refusal to accept payment for his service as president. In making this point, he returned to the issue of divine providence in the founding of the nation.

Finally, Washington’s inaugural address emphasized the benign nature of the republican form of government he and others, including James Madison, who had a hand in virtually every seminal document of the era, including Washington’s speech, envisioned. This was to be representative government, with the voice of the people always assuming a clear, if not conclusive, primacy. Only a democratic form of government, even a republican one, could succeed where others failed. The consent of the governed was a sine qua non of the government’s success. Note, for instance, in the following passage, Washington’s connection between legitimacy, integrity and success:

“I dwell on this prospect with every satisfaction which an ardent love for my Country can inspire: since 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.”

Washington’s inaugural address was brief and to the point. The United States could only survive and prosper if guided by the providential hand of the “Almighty Being” while its government enjoyed the consent of the governed.

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George Washington's Inaugural Address  of 1789 demonstrated his modesty and reverence towards a government for the people and by the people. While Washington was most likely the most popular president to ever assume office of president, he made it clear that he did not wish to abuse his mandate. The president did not use the first inaugural address to make demands on the new Congress.  His only directive towards Congress was the hope that amendments would be passed to provide comfort for the anti-federalist who were not comfortable with the new federal system of government.

James Madison helped George Washington with his inaugural speech. They decided that the speech should be short and to the point. Washington was reluctant to take the office of president and they agreed that this would be included in the speech. Washington stated in his speech that he overcame his own hesitation out of a sense of civic duty and because he loved his country. Another important theme that Washington spoke about was the divine guidance that this country was blessed with. The importance of the speech's theme was that George Washington was going to respect the limitations that the Constitution placed on the executive branch and place trust in the elected officials in the legislative branch. At the same time, he communicated the need to put regional differences aside for the greater good of national unity.

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