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As America's first president, Washington's ultimate goal was to set the new nation on the path to reason and happiness.

By Susan Dunn

On April 1, 1789, George Washington, soon to be sworn in as the first president of the new United States, penned a dour missive to his friend Henry Knox, who would become his secretary of war. “My movements to the chair of government,” he wrote, “will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit, who is going to the place of his execution; so unwilling am I, in the evening of a life nearly consumed in public cares, to quit a peaceful abode for an ocean of difficulties.” Yet, Washington knew that no one else could lend more credibility and legitimacy to the project of binding 13 states into one nation and so, reluctantly, he assumed the office.

"Sacred Union: Farewell to New York" by William Fulton Soare, 1931. Gift of Dr. Thomas Fulton Soare, the artist's only child, and Robert Randolph Soare, the artist's only grandchild, 2006 Conservation courtesy of The Founders, Washington Committee Endowment Fund. MVLA.
"Sacred Union: Farewell to New York" by William Fulton Soare, 1931. Gift of Dr. Thomas Fulton Soare, the artist's only child, and Robert Randolph Soare, the artist's only grandchild, 2006 Conservation courtesy of The Founders, Washington Committee Endowment Fund. MVLA.
In 1789, people still thought of their “country” as Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, or South Carolina. The United States existed only on the parchment of the Constitution—a blueprint for the fledgling national government, including a brief outline of the responsibilities of its chief executive, the president. It would be largely up to Washington, the retired hero of the Revolutionary War, to breathe life into that parchment, to foster a sense of nationhood, and even to incarnate the budding nation.

Later that month, when General Washington arrived in New York City for his inauguration, he had hoped, as he wrote to the governor of New York, for a “quiet entry devoid of ceremony.” But on the afternoon of April 23, a flotilla of gaily festooned boats of all sizes, their flags waving in the wind, accompanied his barge across Newark Bay toward Manhattan. Nearing the pier at the foot of Wall Street, Washington could make out masses of people crowded along the waterfront and stretching up the streets behind.

A week later, on April 30, after taking the oath of office on the balcony of New York’s Federal Hall before an immense crowd of his fellow citizens, Washington went indoors to the Senate chamber to deliver the first presidential inaugural address. “The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government,” he told members of the first Congress, were deeply “staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”

A selection of buttons commemorating Washington's presidency. (Mark Finkenstaedt)

It was indeed a bold experiment. Washington, Madison, Hamilton, Jay, Jefferson, Adams, and the other brilliant men in that stunning galaxy of revolutionary leaders were embarking on a form of government that had little precedent, one based not on obedience to rulers or masters or priests, but on the pure sovereignty of “We, the People.” Indeed, James Madison recognized, as he wrote, that history could “furnish no other light than that of beacons, which give warning of the course to be shunned, without pointing out that which ought to be pursued.” It would be up to Americans to chart a radically new and unexplored course. And George Washington would be their captain on those rough, treacherous seas.

He saw his principal task as unifying the young nation by emphasizing citizens’ shared beliefs, hopes, and values. “With slight shades of difference,” he would later say, “you have the same Religion, Manners, Habits and political Principles.” One of the most important of those principles was, in Washington’s view, respect for human reason. That reason, in turn, was the means to one of the highest of all human goals: happiness. Reason and happiness—the two essential ideas of the 18th-century Enlightenment—were two fundamental themes of Washington’s presidency.

Disciple of Reason as Enlightenment Ideal

Washington believed that his countrymen were free and rational beings who, through reflection, discussion, and debate, could shape and determine their own social and political destiny. Months after the Constitutional Convention, he wrote that Americans had presented “the novel & astonishing Spectacle of a whole People deliberating calmly on what form of government will be most conducive to their happiness.” He restated this foundational interpretation of the American experiment in his inaugural address when he expressed gratitude to “the benign Parent of the Human Race,” not for any divine intervention in the creation of the republic, but rather for simply favoring Americans “with opportunities for deliberating in perfect tranquillity, and dispositions for deciding with unparalleled unanimity on a form of government for the security of their union and the advancement of their happiness.” In other words, “the benign Parent” let His children be free; free to think about, and then choose, the government and nation they wanted for themselves and their posterity.

And yet, the president’s great respect for human reason also made him aware of its limitations and fallibility—an awareness that underlay his humility, moderation, tolerance for diverse points of view, and openness to compromise. In a draft of his 1796 Farewell Address, Washington wrote that “to err is the lot of humanity, and never, for a moment, have I ever had the presumption to suppose that I had not a full proportion of it. Infallibility not being the attribute of Man, we ought to be cautious in censuring the opinions and conduct of one another.”

"Inauguration of Washington," engraver unknown, after Alonzo Chappel, 1859. Published by Johnson, Fry & Co. Publishers. MVLA.

"Infallibility not being the attribute of Man, we ought to be cautious in censuring the opinions and conduct of one another."

- George Washington

Moderate in expressing his own views and open to those of others, Washington had been profoundly distressed by the bitter discord that emerged within his own administration between Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. “Without more charity for the opinions and acts of one another in Governmental matters,” the president lectured Jefferson in 1792, “it will be difficult, if not impracticable, to manage the Reins of Government or to keep the parts of it together.” Washington, who leaned toward Hamilton’s economic and pro-industrial policies and not Jefferson’s agrarian vision, urged Jefferson to make “liberal allowances and mutual forbearances” for the treasury secretary, even as he begged Hamilton to compromise with the secretary of state.

How, after all, could the two rivals be so sure that their own opinions were correct? Each claimed to have reason on his side, but, as Washington wrote, mortals possessed no “infallible rule by which we could fore judge events.” He counseled that “a middle course would be found the best, until experience shall have pointed out the right mode.” The nation and its government, for Washington, had to be shaped by experience and tempered by moderation: an idealistic yet realistic agenda and the key to the stunning success of that world-historical experiment.

The Pursuit of Happiness, Both Personal and Political

Washington paired his respect for reason and moderation with a determined focus on the ultimate goal of happiness. In early 1790, the nation’s first president wrote that “in our progress towards political happiness, my station is new, and, if I may use the expression, I walk on untrodden ground.” His revolutionary and noble task was, as he wrote, to endeavor “to advance the felicity of my country and mankind.” The personal, societal, and political happiness Washington envisioned was a dazzling departure from the religious beliefs of more than a millennium. In the 18th century, Enlightenment thinkers proposed the transformative idea that all people could pursue happiness here on Earth. This propitious state of being was not the result of redemption, grace, or salvation, but rather the result of human imagination and striving and the fostering of social, economic, and political circumstances in which it could thrive.

How did Washington himself conceive happiness? It had nothing to do with the pursuit of pleasure or conspicuous consumption: “Happiness & splendour,” he wrote, had little in common. His idea of happiness was a mirror of himself: a man of wealth and status who dedicated his life to serving the public good. Happiness was, yes, individual Americans enjoying improvements and benefits in their lives, but it also meant the collective satisfaction of citizens working to maintain and improve a well-ordered civil and political society that promoted liberty and equality.

In his inaugural address, Washington described an “indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage.” In other words, reason taught that a person’s self-interest and happiness were inseparable from citizenship, and that citizenship meant balancing one’s individual ambitions and desires with a concern for the welfare of the community and the nation. When citizens worked together for the good of all, they would reap the solid rewards of prosperity and felicity for themselves. Virtue was not, in fact, its own reward: the reward was happiness.

Washington did not envision the quest for happiness as a burdensome enterprise. “I think I see a path, as clear and direct as a ray of light,” he wrote to his friend and protégé the Marquis de Lafayette in 1789. “Nothing but harmony, honesty, industry and frugality are necessary to make us a great and happy people.”

The inherent truth of Washington’s formula for happiness was confirmed by French political thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited the United States in 1831. Americans, he recorded in his masterpiece, Democracy in America:

Enjoy explaining almost every act of their lives on the principle of self-interest properly understood. It gives them pleasure to point out how an enlightened self-love continually leads them to help one another and disposes them freely to give part of their time and wealth for the good of the state.... The doctrine of self-interest properly understood does not inspire great sacrifices, but every day it prompts some small ones; by itself it cannot make a man virtuous, but its discipline shapes a lot of orderly, temperate, moderate, careful and self-controlled citizens. If it does not lead the will directly to virtue, it establishes habits which unconsciously turn it that way.

A Conscious Legacy of Perpetual Advancement

As the head of the infant republic, President George Washington helped establish an energetic executive branch of government, promoted citizens’ loyalty to the youthful nation, created a promising environment for commerce and industry, and protected America from European aggression. At the same time, he worked to preserve freedom under law and give new civic meaning to the pursuit of happiness. It was a high-wire act—and he succeeded brilliantly.

On a warm summer day in July 1796, standing on the steps of the west door to his home at Mount Vernon, Washington spoke to some friends about a subject dear to his heart: a national university, a university of the United States. What better way to symbolize the young nation and cultivate its unity than with a school sponsored by the republic itself? It was a vision colored by the college education Washington never had, and by the military experience he did—the sense of community and fraternity, the union of diverse men who slept, hoped, prayed, obeyed, fought, and faced death together. “A century in the ordinary intercourse, would not have accomplished what the Seven years association in Arms did,” he wrote in 1796. The university he envisioned would similarly offer its students communion in learning. Even as they benefited from the finest liberal education the American Enlightenment could offer, these “young men from different parts of the United States,” he wrote, “would be assembled together and would by degrees discover that here was not that cause for those jealousies and prejudices which one part of the Union had imbibed against another part.”

Washington hoped that such a university would be his gift to the country, his last offering to its unification under Enlightenment principles. He designated land for it in the new federal city across the Potomac and personally offered a substantial endowment. Unfortunately, Congress displayed little interest in his plan. But his generosity, both of vision and money, proved that his commitment to the American nation—to “the sacred union of citizens,” as he wrote in his Farewell Address—never weakened. As commander in chief, as retired general, as president of the Constitutional Convention, and, especially, as the first president of the United States, he incarnated the national idea.

Gilbert Stuart’s 1796 “Lansdowne” portrait of George Washington captures for all time the spirit, values, and greatness of the man. In the painting, Washington stands erect, his right arm outstretched in a welcoming, inclusive gesture. He is not seated on the presidential chair, which belongs not to him alone, but to all the future presidents of the republic. Though a sword hangs at his side, Washington is dressed simply in black, a plain unostentatious citizen. To his right is a table on which are a quill, ink, and books—symbols of knowledge and reason. The table’s leg resembles a column of grain stalks bound together, representing the fruitful unity of the states and nation. Through a window in the background, a beautiful rainbow is visible—a glowing sign of the prospect of happiness after the storm.

The west front of Mount Vernon, Edward Savage, c. 1787-1792.

"George Washington" (Lansdowne Portrait), Gilbert Stuart, 1796, oil on canvas (National Portrait Gallery)

About the Author

Susan Dunn is the Massachusetts Professor of Humanities at Williams College. She is co-author, with James MacGregor Burns, of George Washington and the author of many books, including Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison, and the Decline of Virginia and Jefferson’s Second Revolution.

To hear more from Dunn, listen below as the historian discusses her early books on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the importance of the Bill of Rights in the 20th Century, and how public education contributions to the creation of good citizens.