On April 30, 1789, George Washington, standing on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street in New York, took his oath of office as the first President of the United States.
On April 30, 1789, George Washington, standing on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street in New York, took his oath of office as the first President of the United States. “As the first of every thing, in our situation will serve to establish a Precedent,” he wrote James Madison, “it is devoutly wished on my part, that these precedents may be fixed on true principles.”
Born in 1732 into a Virginia planter family, he learned the morals, manners, and body of knowledge requisite for an 18th century Virginia gentleman.
He pursued two intertwined interests: military arts and western expansion. At 16 he helped survey Shenandoah lands for Thomas, Lord Fairfax. Commissioned a lieutenant colonel in 1754, he fought the first skirmishes of what grew into the French and Indian War. The next year, as an aide to Gen. Edward Braddock, he escaped injury although four bullets ripped his coat and two horses were shot from under him.
From 1759 to the outbreak of the American Revolution, Washington managed his lands around Mount Vernon and served in the Virginia House of Burgesses. Married to a widow, Martha Dandridge Custis, he devoted himself to a busy and happy life. But like his fellow planters, Washington felt himself exploited by British merchants and hampered by British regulations. As the quarrel with the mother country grew acute, he moderately but firmly voiced his resistance to the restrictions.
When the Second Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia in May 1775, Washington, one of the Virginia delegates, was elected Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. On July 3, 1775, at Cambridge, Massachusetts, he took command of his ill-trained troops and embarked upon a war that was to last six grueling years.
He realized early that the best strategy was to harass the British. He reported to Congress, “we should on all Occasions avoid a general Action, or put anything to the Risque, unless compelled by a necessity, into which we ought never to be drawn.” Ensuing battles saw him fall back slowly, then strike unexpectedly. Finally in 1781 with the aid of French allies–he forced the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown.
Washington longed to retire to his fields at Mount Vernon. But he soon realized that the Nation under its Articles of Confederation was not functioning well, so he became a prime mover in the steps leading to the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia in 1787. When the new Constitution was ratified, the Electoral College unanimously elected Washington President.
He did not infringe upon the policy making powers that he felt the Constitution gave Congress. But the determination of foreign policy became preponderantly a Presidential concern. When the French Revolution led to a major war between France and England, Washington refused to accept entirely the recommendations of either his Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who was pro-French, or his Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who was pro-British. Rather, he insisted upon a neutral course until the United States could grow stronger.
To his disappointment, two parties were developing by the end of his first term. Wearied of politics, feeling old, he retired at the end of his second. In his Farewell Address, he urged his countrymen to forswear excessive party spirit and geographical distinctions. In foreign affairs, he warned against long-term alliances.
Washington enjoyed less than three years of retirement at Mount Vernon, for he died of a throat infection December 14, 1799. For months the Nation mourned him.
Martha Dandridge Custis Washington
“I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else, there is certain bounds set for me which I must not depart from…” So in one of her surviving letters, Martha Washington confided to a niece that she did not entirely enjoy her role as first of First Ladies. She once conceded that “many younger and gayer women would be extremely pleased” in her place; she would “much rather be at home.”
But when George Washington took his oath of office in New York City on April 30, 1789, and assumed the new duties of President of the United States, his wife brought to their position a tact and discretion developed over 58 years of life in Tidewater Virginia society.
Oldest daughter of John and Frances Dandridge, she was born June 2, 1731, on a plantation near Williamsburg. Typical for a girl in an 18th-century family, her education was almost negligible except in domestic and social skills, but she learned all the arts of a well-ordered household and how to keep a family contented.
As a girl of 18–about five feet tall, dark-haired, gentle of manner–she married the wealthy Daniel Parke Custis. Two babies died; two were hardly past infancy when her husband died in 1757.
From the day Martha married George Washington in 1759, her great concern was the comfort and happiness of her husband and children. When his career led him to the battlegrounds of the Revolutionary War and finally to the Presidency, she followed him bravely. Her love of private life equaled her husband’s; but, as she wrote to her friend Mercy Otis Warren, “I cannot blame him for having acted according to his ideas of duty in obeying the voice of his country.” As for herself, “I am still determined to be cheerful and happy, in whatever situation I may be; for I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances.”
At the President’s House in temporary capitals, New York and Philadelphia, the Washingtons chose to entertain in formal style, deliberately emphasizing the new republic’s wish to be accepted as the equal of the established governments of Europe. Still, Martha’s warm hospitality made her guests feel welcome and put strangers at ease. She took little satisfaction in ” formal compliments and empty ceremonies” and declared that “I am fond of only what comes from the heart.” Abigail Adams, who sat at her right during parties and receptions, praised her as “one of those unassuming characters which create Love and Esteem.”
In 1797 the Washingtons said farewell to public life and returned to their beloved Mount Vernon, to live surrounded by kinfolk, friends, and a constant stream of guests eager to pay their respects to the celebrated couple. Martha’s daughter Patsy had died, her son Jack at 26, but Jack’s children figured in the household. After George Washington died in 1799, Martha assured a final privacy by burning their letters; she died of “severe fever” on May 22, 1802. Both lie buried at Mount Vernon, where Washington himself had planned an unpretentious tomb for them.
The Music of George Washington
In his orders to his army during the American Revolution on June 4, 1777, George Washington complained that the “music of the army [was] in general very bad.”
He ordered that “the drum and fife Majors exert themselves to improve it, or they will be reduced [demoted], and their extraordinary pay taken from them.”
Washington explained that specific hours would be assigned “for all the drums and fifes, of each regiment, to attend them and practice.”
Noting that “Nothing is more agreeable, and ornamental, than good music,” Washington directed that “every officer, for the credit of his corps, should take care to provide it.”1 Even during the Revolutionary War, the issue of music was on George Washington’s mind.
Shortly before his inauguration as the first President of the United States, Washington sent a letter to thank Francis Hopkinson, the author of a new composition entitled Seven Songs (November 1788), which was dedicated to Washington. Washington wrote Hopkinson in order to thank him for sending a copy. In the letter, Washington admitted that he could “neither sing one of the songs, nor raise a single note of any instrument.”2
Although he may not have been musically-inclined himself, Washington was the head of a household where his wife, her two children, and her four grandchildren (two of whom were raised by the Washingtons) all studied music.3 As an adult, Martha Washington‘s grandson George Washington Parke Custis recalled that his sister, Eleanor Parke had to practice “very long and very unwillingly at the harpsichord. . .the poor girl would play and cry, and cry and play, for long hours, under the immediate eye of her grandmother, a rigid disciplinarian in all things.”4
The practicing appeared to have paid off. Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, a Polish nobleman who visited Mount Vernon for around two weeks in June of 1798, wrote of Nelly that, “Her sweetness is equal to her beauty, and this being, so perfect of form, possesses all the talents: she plays the harpsichord, sings, draws better than any woman in America or even in Europe.” On the last night of his visit, he wrote sadly, “In the evening, for the last time, pretty Miss Custis sang and played on the harpsichord.”5
Among the surviving musical scores owned by Nelly Custis were the following: several adapted by her music teacher Alexander Reinagle for the piano from the operas Rosina and The Poor Soldier, a version of a Haydn symphony called Le Reine de France arranged for harpsichord or pianoforte, a keyboard arrangement of Gluck’s overture to the opera Iphigenia at Aulis, several sonatas by J. C. Bach, as well as an excerpt from Handel’s “Water Music”, and Haydn’s “Mermaids Song.”6
Nelly also owned song books with lyrics and scores from popular operas. One songbook, entitled Original Scotish Airs, contained poems by Robert Burns set to musical scores by Pleyel. In addition were songs from the following operas: Artaxerxes, The Pirates, and The Purse. There were also songs written in honor of her step-grandfather, including: “General Washington’s March” (anonymous composer), “The President’s March” by Phile, “The President of the United States’ March” by Sicard, “Welcome, mighty chief! Once more…” and “Faederal March,” both by Alexander Reinagle.7
Mary V. Thompson
Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens
1. George Washington, “General Orders, June 4, 1777,” The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, Vol. 8, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1931), 181-2.
2. “George Washington to Francis Hopkinson, February 5, 1789,” The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 30,196-7.
3. Judith S. Britt, Nothing More Agreeable: Music in George Washington’s Family (Mount Vernon, VA: The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, 1984), 11.
4. George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, by His Adopted Son, George Washington Parke Custis, With a Memoir of the Author, by His Daughter; and Illustrative and Explanatory Notes, ed. Benson J. Lossing (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1860), 408n.
5. Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, 2 June and 14 June 1798, as quoted in Experiencing Mount Vernon: Eyewitness Accounts, 1784-1865, ed. Jean B. Lee (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2006), 74, 87.
6. Britt, 30.
7. Britt, 46-7.