The True George Washington: Citizen and Office-Holder: Speeches

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff


Through all his life Washington was no speechmaker. In 1758, by an order of the Assembly, Speaker Robinson was directed to return its thanks to Colonel Washington, on behalf of the colony, for the distinguished military services which he had rendered to the country. As soon as he took his seat in the House, the Speaker performed this duty in such glowing terms as quite overwhelmed him. Washington rose to express his acknowledgments for the honor, but was so disconcerted as to be unable to articulate a word distinctly. He blushed and faltered for a moment, when the Speaker relieved him from his embarrassment by saying, "Sit down, Mr. Washington, your modesty equals your valor, and that surpasses the power of any language that I possess."

This stage-fright seems to have clung to him. When Adams hinted that Congress should "appoint a General," and added, "I had no hesitation to declare that I had but one gentleman in my mind for that important command, and that was a gentleman whose skill and experience as an officer, whose independent fortune, great talents, and excellent universal character, would command the approbation of all America, and unite the cordial exertions of all the Colonies better than any other person in the Union," he relates that "Mr. Washington who happened to sit near the door, as soon as he heard me allude to him, from his usual modesty, darted into the library-room."

So, too, at his inauguration as President, Maclay noted that "this great man was agitated and embarrassed more than ever he was by the leveled cannon or pointed musket. He trembled, and several times could scarce make out to read [his speech], though it must be supposed he had often read it before," and Fisher Ames wrote, "He addressed the two Houses in the Senate-chamber; it was a very touching scene and quite of a solemn kind. His aspect grave, almost to sadness; his modesty actually shaking; his voice deep, a little tremulous, and so low as to call for close attention,"

There can be little doubt that this non-speech-making ability was not merely the result of inaptitude, but was also a principle, for when his favorite nephew was elected a burgess, and made a well-thought-of speech in his first attempt, his uncle wrote him, "You have, I find, broke the ice. The only advice I will offer to you on the occasion (if you have a mind to command the attention of the House,) is to speak seldom, but to important subjects, except such as particularly relate to your constituents; and, in the former case, make yourself perfectly master of the subject. Never exceed a decent warmth, and submit your sentiments with diffidence. A dictatorial stile, though it may carry conviction, is always accompanied with disgust." To a friend writing of this same speech he said, "with great pleasure I received the information respecting the commencement of my nephew's political course. I hope he will not be so bouyed by the favorable impression it has made, as to become a babbler."

Even more indicative of his own conceptions of senatorial conduct is advice given in a letter to Jack Custis, when the latter, too, achieved an election to the Assembly.

"I do not suppose," he wrote, "that so young a senator as you are, little versed in political disquisitions, can yet have much influence in a populous assembly, composed of Gentln. of various talents and of different views. But it is in your power to be punctual in your attendance (and duty to the trust reposed in you exacts it of you), to hear dispassionately and determine coolly all great questions. To be disgusted at the decision of questions, because they are not consonant to your own ideas, and to withdraw ourselves from public assemblies, or to neglect our attendance at them, upon suspicion that there is a party formed, who are inimical to our cause, and to the true interest of our country, is wrong, because these things may originate in a difference of opinion; but, supposing the fact is otherwise, and that our suspicions are well founded, it is the indispensable duty of every patriot to counteract them by the most steady and uniform opposition."

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