WASHINGTON, George. Autograph letter signed ("G:o Washington") to Jonathan Trumbull (1740-1809), Mount Vernon, 4 December 1788. 1½ pages, 4to (9¼ x 7½ in.), expert repairs to small fold tears. integral blank lightly stained, otherwise in fine condition, with Trumbull's docket.
THE PROSPECT OF THE PRESIDENCY: "IF EVER I SHOULD BE INDUCED TO GO FROM HOME IN A PUBLIC CHARACTER AGAIN, IT WILL CERTAINLY BE THE GREATEST SACRIFICE OF FEELING & HAPPINESS THAT EVER WAS OR EVER CAN BE MADE"
One of Washington's most candid and passionate confessions of his deeply ambivalent feelings about the prospect of assuming the burdens of the presidency under the newly ratified Constitution. As Flexner notes, in spite of Washington's deep anxieties, "his emotions and also his position in history had remained irrevocably entangled with the government in the establishment of which he had already played so important a role" (J.T. Flexner, George Washington and the New Nation: 1783-1793, p.159). To Alexander Hamilton, in October, he had indulged in the empty hope that perhaps the electoral college would choose someone else, to "save me from the dreaded Dilemma of being forced to accept or refuse (Fitzpatrick, 30:110).
Here, Washington congratulates Trumbull on the outcome of the first Federal elections in Trumbull's home state, Connecticut: "I was extremely happy to find that your state was going on so well as to Federal affairs...and I have been not a little pleased with observing that your name stood high in the nomination for representatives to Congress. In general the appointments [elections] to the Senate have been very happy. " Considering the new government being formed, he observes that "much will depend on having disinterested and respectable characters in both Houses. For if the new Congress should be composed of characters in whom the citizens will naturally place a confidence, it will be a most fortunate circumstance for conciliating their good will to the government, and then, if the government can be carried on without touching the purses of the people too deeply, I think it will not be in the power of the adversaries of it [the government] to throw everything into confusion, by effecting premature amendments. A few months will, however, show what we are to expect." (Washington alludes to the numerous minor amendments already proposed, not to the Bill of Rights, which he favored. He and many fellow Federalists felt it was better to allow the new government a trial period for any problems to emerge, before tinkering with the details of the compact.)
Then, in a strikingly frank response to Trumbull's question about the probability of his being elected President, Washington adds "I believe you know me sufficiently well, my dear Trumbull, to conceive that I am very much perplexed and distressed in my own mind, respecting the subject to which you allude. If I should (unluckily for me) be reduced to the necessity of giving an answer to the question, which you suppose will certainly be put to me, I would fain do what is in all respects best.-- But how can I know what is best, or on what shall I determine? May heaven assist me in forming a judgement: for at present, I see nothing but clouds and darkness before me. This much I may safely say to you in confidence; if ever I should from any apparent necessity, be induced to go from home in a public character again--it will certainly be the greatest sacrifice of feeling & happiness that ever was or ever can be made by him, who will have in all situations, the pleasure to profess himself, with sentiments of real esteem Your affect[ionat]e friend and Obed[ien]t servant."
By the start of the new year, Washington had mastered his strong self-doubts and had begun preparations for his new office, although for the sake of modesty he still maintained, even when writing to friends like Lafayette, that he might decline. The Electoral College met in New York in early February but a quorum was not attained until March 30, and it was not until April 14 that Charles Thomson, Secretary of Congress, arrived at Mount Vernon with the long-anticipated news that Washington was the unanimous choice for President.
Published (from a letterbook copy), in Writings, ed. J.C. Fitzpatrick, 30:148-150.
Provenance: Francis T.P. Plimpton (sale, Sotheby's, 23 May 1984, lot 307).