Reluctant president

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George Washington: The Reluctant President

Even as the Constitution was being ratified, Americans looked toward a figure of singular probity to fill the new office of the presidency. On February 4, 1789, the 69 members of the Electoral College made George Washington the only chief executive to be unanimously elected. Congress was supposed to make the choice official that March but could notmuster a quorum until April. The reason—bad roads—suggests the condition of the country Washington would lead. In a new biography, Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow has created a portrait of the man as his contemporaries saw him. The excerpt below sheds light on the president’s state of mind as the first Inauguration Day approached.
The Congressional delay in certifying George Washington’s electionas president only allowed more time for doubts to fester as he considered the herculean task ahead. He savored his wait as a welcome “reprieve,” he told his former comrade in arms and future Secretary of War Henry Knox, adding that his “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.” His “peacefulabode” at Mount Vernon, his fears that he lacked the requisite skills for the presidency, the “ocean of difficulties” facing the country—all gave him pause on the eve of his momentous trip to New York. In a letter to his friend Edward Rutledge, he made it seem as if the presidency was little short of a death sentence and that, in accepting it, he had given up “all expectations of private happiness inthis world.”
The day after Congress counted the electoral votes, declaring Washington the first president, it dispatched Charles Thomson, the secretary of Congress, to bear the official announcement to Mount Vernon. The legislators had chosen a fine emissary. A well-rounded man, known for his work in astronomy and mathematics, the Irish-born Thomson was a tall, austere figure with a narrow faceand keenly penetrating eyes. He couldn’t have relished the trying journey to Virginia, which was “much impeded by tempestuous weather, bad roads, and the many large rivers I had to cross.” Yet he rejoiced that the new president would be Washington, whom he venerated as someone singled out by Providence to be “the savior and father” of the country. Having known Thomson since the ContinentalCongress, Washington esteemed him as a faithful public servant and exemplary patriot.
Around noon on April 14, 1789, Washington flung open the door at Mount Vernon and greeted his visitor with a cordial embrace. Once in the privacy of the mansion, he and Thomson conducted a stiff verbal minuet, each man reading from a prepared statement. Thomson began by declaring, “I am honored with the commands of theSenate to wait upon your Excellency with the information of your being elected to the office of President of the United States of America” by a unanimous vote. He read aloud a letter from Senator John Langdon of New Hampshire, the president pro tempore. “Suffer me, sir, to indulge the hope that so auspicious a mark of public confidence will meet your approbation and be considered as a sure pledgeof the affection and support you are to expect from a free and enlightened people.” There was something deferential, even slightly servile, in Langdon’s tone, as if he feared that Washington might renege on his promise and refuse to take the job. Thus was greatness once again thrust upon George Washington.
Any student of Washington’s life might have predicted that he would acknowledge hiselection in a short, self-effacing speech full of disclaimers. “While I realize the arduous nature of the task which is conferred on me and feel my inability to perform it,” he replied to Thomson, “I wish there may not be reason for regretting the choice. All I can promise is only that which can be accomplished by an honest zeal.” This sentiment of modesty jibed so perfectly with Washington’s private...
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