|Washington responds to an address from the members of a prominent Philadelphia Lutheran congregation, likely written from New York City in the first two weeks of his Presidency. This exceptional letter shows that Washington believed the Revolution was guided by Providence, but also that human virtues would be necessary to build a successful nation. He offers hope of “a wise and efficient government” for the United States, and is confident that his new position will offer ample opportunity to encourage “the domestic and public virtues of Industry, Oeconomy, Patriotism, Philanthropy, and that Righteousness which exalteth a Nation.” Washington closes by thanking the ministers for their pledge to continue praying for him at the “Throne of Grace.”|
George Washington. Letter Signed as President, to Justus Henry Helmuth. [New York, N.Y.], ca. May 9 - May 12, 1789. 2 pp., 7¾ x 13 in. With address leaf.
To the Ministers, Church Wardens and Vestrymen of the German Lutheran Congregation in and near PhiladelphiaGentlemen,While I request you to accept my thanks for your kind address, I must profess myself highly gratified by the sentiments of esteem and consideration contained in it. The approbation my past conduct has received from so worthy a body of citizens as that whose joy for my appointmt you announce, is a proof of the indulgence with which my future transactions will be judged by them.I could not however avoid apprehending that the partiality of my Countrymen in favor of the measures now pursued has led them to expect too much from the present Government; did not the same Providence which has been visible in every stage of our progress to this interesting crisis, from a combination of circumstances, give us cause to hope for the accomplishment of all our reasonable desires.Thus, partaking with you in the pleasing anticipation of the blessings of a wise and efficient government; I flatter myself that opportunities will not be wanting for me to show my disposition to encourage the domestic and public virtues of Industry, Oeconomy, Patriotism, Philanthropy, and that Righteousness which exalteth a Nation.
|Location of Origin: North America|
|Dimensions: 7¾ x 13 in.|
|Primary Classification: Antique Books, Manuscripts, and Maps : Historical Documents, Letters & Autographs|
|Secondary Classification: Folk Art and Americana|
|Three days before his inauguration, ministers Justus Helmuth and J.F. Schmidt wrote to Washington on behalf of their congregation, St Michael’s and Zion Lutheran church, in Philadelphia. They saluted the President-elect and complimented his character and accomplishments. With Washington at the helm of the nation, the ministers anticipated “the blessings of a wise and efficient government - equal freedom, perfect safety - a sweet contentment spreading through the whole land ... and that righteousness which exalteth a Nation.” They also promised that their congregation would continue to pray to “the Throne of Grace” on Washington’s behalf.|
George Washington was the only President to win unanimous approval by the Electoral College with 69 votes. Each elector voted twice (for President and Vice President), and John Adams gained the Vice Presidency with 34 votes. John Jay was a distant third place finisher, with 9 votes. Congress tabulated and announced the official results in on April 6, 1789, and then commissioned Charles Thomson, who had been secretary of the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1789, to travel to Mount Vernon and inform Washington of his victory.
Washington’s week-long journey from Mount Vernon to New York was “one prolonged coronation ceremony. It began with crowds of more than ten thousand celebrants cheering him amidst cannon salutes and poetic tributes at Baltimore and Wilmington. Outside Philadelphia he was obliged to mount a white horse so that the twenty thousand spectators could see him as he crossed the Schuylkill.” Washington reached Philadelphia at 1 p.m. on April 20. He stayed with Robert Morris, and departed the following morning around 10 a.m. Civic and religious organizations from the major cities along his route delivered messages of welcome and thanks. In Philadelphia, he received letters from the state chapter of the Society of the Cincinnati, the Executive Council of the state, the mayor, aldermen, and common council of the city, and the President and faculty of the University of Pennsylvania. In his replies, Washington sounded themes of gratitude and humility about assuming the nation’s highest office.
In Trenton, New Jersey the following day, “a chorus of white-robed girls tossed flowers from their baskets in his path,” historian Joseph Ellis has written. On April 23, “A congressional committee greeted him at Elizabethtown, where a fifty-foot barge manned by thirteen white-smocked sailors rowed him across the Hudson.” That day, Washington arrived in New York City and Mayor James Duane and Governor George Clinton welcomed him. Pierre L’Enfant, future planner of Washington, D.C., transformed New York’s City Hall into Federal Hall, a gleaming, neoclassical edifice with a glass cupola. Washington took the Oath of Office on April 30, 1789.
As his inauguration neared, Washington had struggled to craft his first presidential address. He scrapped his lengthy first draft after showing it to James Madison. The final version, written by Madison, was less specific in policy goals but more inspired. It was similar in tone and content to Washington’s reply to the Lutheran ministers. Washington grandly stated that “it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official Act, my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe … and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that his benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the People of the United States, a Government instituted by themselves.” This perspective, often coupled with the belief that America was the “city upon a hill,” the last best hope for liberty, descended from the Puritans and still resonates today. It also suggests Washington’s complicated relationship with faith - belief in a higher power but the conviction that humans were in charge of their own fates.
|Provenance: This letter was discovered by a descendant of Justus Henry Christian Helmuth (1745-1825), and acquired by us at Christie’s in June 2008. Helmuth was the senior minister to the congregation and pastor of St. Michael’s and Zion Parish, the largest Lutheran Parish in the country, from 1779 to 1820. Born in Brunswick, Germany, he attended an orphan school in Halle and studied theology, Latin and Hebrew. Ordained at Wernigerode, he was sent to America, arriving in April 1769 at Philadelphia. He was minister to the German Evangelical Congregation of Lancaster until 1779, and then became minister of the Philadelphia congregation. Helmuth was also a trustee and professor of German and Oriental languages at the University of Pennsylvania.|
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