After the members of Congress had reassembled, Washington began to read the speech that Madison had drafted for him weeks earlier. “I was looking upon an organ of popular will just beginning to breathe the breath of life,” one onlooker recalled almost half a century later.
It was obvious that the president, whose mere presence awed nearly every American, was nearly paralyzed by anxiety. In contrast to Humphreys’s earlier, overloaded draft, the speech that Madison had shaped was lucid and reassuring. “The magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of the country called me,” Washington told the assembled members of Congress, “could not but overwhelm with despondence, one, who, inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpractised in the duties of civil administration, ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies.”
The weight of history lay on their collective shoulders, he reminded them. “The destiny of the Republican model of Government” was deeply, perhaps for all time, staked on “the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.” That is, how they performed in these first sessions of Congress would affect not just themselves, and the voters who had elected them, but untold future generations.
Accentuating his willingness to defer to the legislative branch, he observed that while the Constitution had empowered the president to recommend whatever measures he deemed necessary and expedient, it would be “far more congenial with the feelings which actuate me to substitute, in place of a recommendation of particular measures, the tribute that is due to the talents, the rectitude, and the patriotism which adorn the characters selected to devise and adopt them” – the members of Congress. Here he was clearly acknowledging that he recognized Congress as the paramount branch of government.
The pressure on Washington was immense, and public expectations so high that he could never fully satisfy them, he knew. The president-to-be had received any number of importunate pleas from men such as John Armstrong Jr., a former member of the Continental Congress, who had begged him “to yield your services to the providential voice of God expressed in the voice of your country.” (Armstrong may have been one of the less convincing voices, however: at the end of the Revolutionary War, he had written the infamous Newburgh Address, which urged Washington to assume dictatorial powers.)
So many conflicting worries tore at Washington, both political and personal: the unrest on the frontier and the financial instability in the states, the resurgence of the Constitution’s opponents in Virginia, the planting schedules for his next season’s crops of wheat and rye, the challenge of managing the remote lands he owned in the West, the declining health of his eighty-year-old mother, who was dying of cancer at Fredericksburg. And now he was about to shoulder the unprecedented burdens of the presidency.
To his neighbor Samuel Vaughn he confessed, as he doubtless did to Madison, “The event which I have long dreaded, I am at last constrained to believe, is now likely to happen. From the moment, when the necessity had become more apparent, and as it were inevitable, I anticipated in a heart filled with distress, the ten thousand embarrassments, perplexities and troubles to which I must again be exposed in the evening of a life, already near consumed in public cares.”
The panorama, Washington later wrote, “filled my mind with sensations as painful (considering the reverse of this scene, which may be the case after all my labors to do good) as any New Yorkers held him personally responsible for losing their city to the British in the they are pleasing.”
It was Washington’s first trip back to New York since the end of the war. If any New Yorkers held him personally responsible for losing their city to the British in the catastrophic battle of Long Island, they had clearly forgiven. He was filled with trepidation: all his sacrifices, the years of war and political struggle, the great experiment upon which the nation was about to embark – it might yet collapse into fiasco, and come to nothing. At fifty-seven the aging war hero, a giant by the standards of his time, with his great beak of a nose, broad shoulders, and massive thighs that seemed to have been crafted by the Almighty to fit the back of a horse, was a living demigod. During the war, he had exhibited superhuman stoicism through the years of brutal winters, hunger, battlefield defeat, and civilian disaffection.
This article draws upon Chapter 3: A New Era, in my new book, The First Congress.