The following represents accounts of George Washington's visits and connections to Rhode Island, spanning from his military service during the French and Indian War through the presidency.
Colonel George Washington appears to have made his first visit to Rhode Island while travelling to Boston to discuss issues related to his rank with Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts. Washington was accompanied on this trip by Captains George Mercer and Robert Stewart of the Virginia Regiment, as well as his two hired servants, John Alton and Thomas Bishop. The party left Alexandria, Virginia, on February 4, 1756, and travelled through Philadelphia, New York, and New London. While in New London, they stayed at the home of a friend, Joseph Chew, where they left their horses.1
Image: National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.
On Monday, April 15, 1776, George Washington wrote to inform the President of Congress that he had left his headquarters at Cambridge, Massachusetts on April 4th, headed for New York City. En route, Washington passed through Providence, Rhode Island, and Norwich, and New London, in Connecticut, "in order to see and expedite the embarkation of the Troops."2 Washington was in Providence on the morning of April 6, 1776, preparing to continue his journey, when he wrote to Rhode Island governor Nicholas Cooke, relaying his compliments to both him and the "Gentlemen of Providence." Washington noted that he would accept the "polite invitation" he received from the governor and his associates.3
February 12, 1781
On this date, French forces in Newport staged one of the first recorded public celebration of George Washington's birthday. The Comte de Rochambeau wrote to Washington to say that "Yesterday was the anniversary of your Excellency's birth day. We have put off celebrating that holiday till to-day, by reason of the Lord's day and we will celebrate it with the sole regret that your Excellency will be not a Witness of the effusion and gladness of our hearts." Among the "effusions" of the day were a parade by the French troops, an artillery salute, and a reprieve from work.4
George Washington went to Newport, Rhode Island in March of 1781 to meet with the Comte de Rochambeau, the acting French admiral Destouches, and all the senior French officers prior to the departure of the French fleet for the Chesapeake. Washington was greeted in Newport by an artillery salute as he stepped off the ferry on March 6. French troops lined both sides of the path to Rochambeau's headquarters. Newport's political leaders were so excited about Washington's visit, that the town council even furnished free candles so that all the windows in the city could be illuminated in his honor.6
During the visit, Washington informed Samuel Huntington, the President of the Congress, that "In consequence of previous arrangements between the Count de Rochambeau and myself I found between eleven and twelve hundred of the French Grenadiers and Infantry already embarked and the Fleet nearly ready to sail. They however did not put to sea untill [sic] the evening of the 8th." He warned that he had just learned that the British sailed from New London, Connecticut, on March 10t, also "bound for Chesapeak [sic]," and that a "meeting of the two fleets seems unavoidable, and perhaps the issue of a contest between them was never more interesting."
Samuel Huntington, 1731-1796, drawn from the life by Du Simitier in Philadelphia; engraved by B.L. Prevost at Paris, 1781. (Image from the Library of Congress)
In a letter to Lafayette, who was in Virginia, Washington relayed the same information, along with the cautionary note, "I think the French had so much the start that they will first reach that Bay, but as there is no accounting for the delays and accidents of the sea, I have given you this notice, lest you, upon hearing that a Fleet had arrived below, might take it for granted that it was a friendly one and fall down. You will now see that precaution on that head is more than ever necessary."7
Washington appears to have left Newport on the morning of March 13, 1781.8 On the way back to his headquarters at New Windsor, NY, Washington and his party traveled through Providence, Rhode Island.9 While there on March 14, he made an address to the inhabitants of the town, telling them how very moved he was by "those demonstrations of attachment" they had exhibited. Washington continued by expressing his "confidence and affection of his fellow Citizens," who were "the most valuable and agreeable reward a Citizen can receive. Next to the happiness of my Country, this is the most powerful inducement I can have to exert my self [sic] in its Service. Conscious of a sincere desire to promote that great object, however short of my wishes the success of my endeavours [sic] may fall I console myself with a perswasion [sic] that the goodness of my intentions in some measure justifies your approbation."10
According to Washington aide Tench Tilghman's record of the expenses of this trip, on their way from New Windsor, New York to Newport, Rhode Island, George Washington and his staff travelled through the following locations: "Vandenburgs, Morehouses, getting a horse out of Bulls Falls, Litchfield, Farmington, Hartford Ferry, Bolton, Traceys at Norwich, Lothrops at Norwich, Norwich Ferry, Preston, Kennions, Potters at Little Rest, Narragansett Ferry, Connecticut Ferry, and Newport." The group gave seventy-five dollars to a "Poor Woman at Newport" and spent $1,450 for their board in that city. On the return trip from Newport to New Windsor, they travelled on the following route: "Bristol Ferry, Providence Ferry, Providence, Dorrences, Bolton, Hartford Ferry, Farmington and the Widow Strongs, Litchfield, Morehouses, Vandenburgs, Brinkerhoffs, and New Windsor."11
George Washington began his fourth and final visit to Rhode Island on the morning of August 15, 1790, when he left New York City accompanied by his secretaries (William Jackson, Thomas Nelson, Jr., and David Humphreys) and a number of government officials, including Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, New York Governor George Clinton, Supreme Court Justice John Blair, and South Carolina Congressman William Loughton Smith. The group travelled on the packet boat Hancock under the command of Captain Brown, and arrived at Newport, via the Long Island Sound on the morning of August 17. Washington, however, did not previously include Rhode Island as part of his 1789 New England tour, because the state had still not ratified the Constitution or even called for a state ratification convention. Once Rhode Island ratified the Constitution, Washington felt he could visit the state.12
The official portrait of Supreme Court Justice John Blair.
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)
As Washington's boat arrived in Newport Harbor, bells began ringing and ships in the harbor displayed their colors. Congressman Smith recorded, "As we entered the harbour [sic], a salute was fired from the fort and some pieces on the wharves; at our landing we were received by the principal inhabitants of the town, and the clergy, who, forming a procession, escorted us through a considerable concourse of citizens to the lodgings which had been prepared for us; the most respectable inhabitants were then severally presented to the President by Mr. Merchant, Judge of the District Court."
Washington and his party walked around the city on foot, accompanied by "a large number of gentlemen of Newport." They then went back to their rooms and, as described by Smith, "at four o’clock the gentlemen waited again on the President, and we all marched in procession to the Town Hall or State House, where, while dinner was serving up a number of gentlemen were presented. The dinner was well dished, and conducted with great regularity and decency. . .after dinner some good toasts were drank [sic]; among others, following: 'May the last be first,' in allusion to Rhode Island being the last State which ratified the Constitution."13
While in Newport, Washington made one of his most important addresses on the subject of religious liberty, to the members of the Hebrew Congregation. Moses Seixas, a merchant and the warden of Congregation Yeshuat Israel in Newport, initially addressed the president on behalf of his fellow congregants. After welcoming Washington to the city, Seixas, who had Loyalist sympathies during the Revolution, looked back on those difficult days, when God "shielded your head in the day of battle," and rejoiced in the thought that the deity was still looking out for the "Chief Magistrate in these States."
Seixas reminded Washington that the congregation had previously been "Deprived . . . of the invaluable rights of free Citizens" and now saw the new government, "whose basis is Philanthropy, Mutual Confidence and Publick [sic] Virtue" as the work of "the Great God, who ruleth in the Armies Of Heaven and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatever seemeth him good." Seixas concluded by thanking God for "all the Blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under an equal and benign administration" and added a plea for divine blessings on Washington himself.14
In response, Washington noted his appreciation for these "expressions of affection and esteem" and assured the congregation that they could expect safety and continued freedom in the future:
"The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support."15
On the morning of August 18, the clergy and town of Newport gave addresses to the President following breakfast. Joined by Rhode Island Congressman Theodore Foster and New Hampshire Congressman Nicholas Gilman, Washington's party then headed for the wharf. The President and his party left the city by boat around nine in the morning, to the sounds of an artillery salute.16
Washington and his traveling companions arrived in Providence, Rhode Island on August 18, 1790. According to Congressman Smith, the state's governor Arthur Fenner was "so zealous in his respects that he jumped aboard the packet [the boat] as soon as she got to the wharf to welcome the President to Providence." As the party moved up from the wharf, they were followed by "the principal inhabitants of Providence and some from Newport, and other citizens making a long file, preceded by some troops and music; the doors and windows for the length of a mile, were all crowded with ladies and spectators. When we arrived at the tavern…the President stood at the door, and the troops and the procession passed and saluted."17
In response to an address from the Rhode Island legislature, Washington proclaimed that: "A change in the national constitution, conformed to experience and the circumstances of our country, has been most happily effected by the influence of reason alone; in this change the liberty of the citizen continues unimpaired, while the energy of government is so encreased [sic] as to promise full protection to all the pursuits of science and industry; together with the firm establishment of public credit, and the vindication of our national character. It remains with the people themselves to preserve and promote the great advantages of their political and natural situation; nor ought a doubt to be entertained that men, who so well understand the value of social happiness, will ever cease to appreciate the blessings of a free, equal, and efficient government."18
Washington had a private dinner and tea at Abner Daggett's Golden Ball Inn near the State House, where he was staying. Congressman Smith recorded that just as Washington was getting ready to go to bed, he received word that the students at Rhode Island College (now Brown University) "had illuminated it, and would be highly flattered at the President’s going to see it, which he politely agreed to do, though he never goes out at night and it then rained a little, and was a disagreeable night. We now made a nocturnal procession to the College, which indeed was worth seeing, being very splendidly illuminated."19
The next morning, after a heavy rain had stopped, Smith noted that "the President, accompanied as before, began a walk which continued until one o’clock and which completely fatigued the company which formed his escort." The group "visited all the apartments of the College, went on the roof to view the beautiful and extensive prospect," and "stopped and drank wine and punch" before returning to their quarters. As soon as the President was rested, he received the addresses of the Cincinnati, the Rhode Island College, and the Town of Providence, and then went immediately to dinner to the Town Hall."20
Around 200 people attended the dinner, which was notable for the cannon fire that began after each of the thirteen toasts. Following the meal, Washington was escorted by his fellow diners and a large number of other citizens to the wharf, where he and his travel party boarded the boat to return to New York.21
The trip to Rhode Island was hailed as a resounding success. One newspaper, The Pennsylvania Packet reported on August 28, 1790 that "This visit was gratifying to the citizens as it was unexpected….There never was, perhaps, a greater exhibition of sincere public happiness than upon this occasion; every individual thought he beheld a friend and patron; a father or brother after a long absence; and, on his part, the President seemed to feel the joy of a father on the return of the prodigal son. We have little room to doubt that his visit to the state of Rhode Island will be productive of happy effects, for whatever aversion the citizens of that state may have hitherto had to the new government, they must now feel a confidence in the administration of one who possesses their universal esteem."22
1. See The Writings of George Washington, 1:297n7, 298-99; and "Joseph Chew to George Washington, 4 March 1756," The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008.
2. "George Washington to John Hancock, 15 April 1776," The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition.
4. "To George Washington from Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, 12 February 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives."
5. Baron Ludwig Von Closen, "March 3, 1781," in The Revolutionary Journal of Baron Ludwig Von Closen, 1780-1783, ed. Evelyn M. Acomb (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1958), 62 and 62n17.
7. "From George Washington to Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, 8 March 1781," Founders Online, National Archives; "From George Washington to Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, 11 March 1781," Founders Online, National Archives; and "“From George Washington to Samuel Huntington, 11 March 1781," Founders Online, National Archives.
8. "From George Washington to William Greene, 12 March 1781," Founders Online, National Archives.
10. "From George Washington to Jabez Bowen, 14 March 1781," Founders Online, National Archives
14. For the address, see "Moses Seixas to George Washington, 17 August 1 1790," Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 6:286n; For more context on Washington and Seixas, see Fritz Hirschfeld, George Washington and the Jews (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2005), 30-31.
15. “From George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, 18 August 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives. For the suggestion that Thomas Jefferson, David Humphreys, or even Tobias Lear might have written the draft of Washington’s response, see Hirschfeld, 31-3.
18. "From George Washington to the Rhode Island Legislature, 20 November 1790," Founders Online, National Archives.