October 31, 1789

Washington Ends Visit to Massachusetts

PRIMARY SOURCE: Diary, 1789
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On this day in 1789, George Washington concluded a ten-day presidential visit to Massachusetts. Adoring crowds of grateful citizens greeted him everywhere. People preserved the dishes he used, the chairs he sat on, and the beds he slept in. Many of the streets he traveled down were renamed "Washington Street." Only Governor John Hancock slighted the president, insisting that, since he was head of the Commonwealth, Washington should come to visit him. Hancock soon saw the error of his ways. The day after the president's arrival in Boston, Hancock belatedly paid his respects. His legs covered in bandages, he claimed an excruciating attack of gout had prevented him from welcoming the president. In the interest of promoting unity, Washington accepted the explanation with characteristic grace.

The proud governor Hancock refused to come out to meet the president, insisting that as head of the Commonwealth, he outranked the federal president in his own state.

By the time George Washington was sworn in as the first President of the United States on April 30, 1789, he was a wildly popular war hero of almost mythic proportions. Aware that his new government would need to unite the varied, and sometimes conflicting, interests of the 13 former colonies, Washington decided to use his own personal popularity to cement this loosely knit confederation. Demonstrating his keen sense of public relations, he announced that, during his first year in office, he would personally tour every state. In the autumn of 1789, Washington spent four weeks traveling through New England.

Washington's first stop on his historic visit to Massachusetts was Springfield, where he inspected the federal arsenal. Over the next three days, his entourage stopped in Palmer, West Brookfield, Brookfield, Spencer, Leicester, and Worcester, where he received a 13-gun salute. The President continued east through Marlborough, Shrewsbury, Sudbury, and Weston. He arrived in Cambridge, where his headquarters had been during the siege of Boston, on the morning of October 24th. In his diary, Washington noted that upon arriving in Cambridge, “At this place the Lieutt. Govr. Mr. Saml. Adams, with the Executive Council met me and preceded my entrance into town—which was in every degree flattering & honorable.” 

"At this place the Lieutt. Govr. Mr. Saml. Adams, with the Executive Council met me and preceded my entrance into town—which was in every degree flattering & honorable.”

Lt. Governor Samuel Adams escorted Washington into Boston. The day was wet and cold. So was the greeting from the Governor of Massachusetts, John Hancock. The proud governor refused to come out to meet the president, insisting that as head of the Commonwealth, he outranked the federal president in his own state. Hancock's slight was outweighed by the open adoration of the rest of Boston's citizens. Ringing church bells, firing cannons, and the city's dignitaries — minus Hancock —greeted him.

Although Washington had specifically requested that there be no ceremony, the people of Boston could not be restrained. A grand procession accompanied him from the Common to the State House. Grateful citizens, grouped by trade and organized alphabetically, lined the route. Each craft group flew a white silk flag bearing its insignia. When the president reached the State House, he passed through a temporary arch designed by Charles Bullfinch on the model of the triumphal arches of ancient Rome. Washington described the arch in his diary: "in the front of which was this Inscription—'To the Man who unites all hearts' and on the other—'To Columbia’s favorite son' and on one side thereof next the State House, in a panel decorated with a trophy, composed of the arms of the United States—of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts—and our French Allies, crowned with a wreath of Laurel was this Inscription—'Boston relieved March 17th 1776.' This arch was handsomely ornamented, and over the Center of it was erected 20 feet high with the American Eagle, perched on the top."

As Washington passed through the arch, a chorus of young men serenaded him with a song written especially for the occasion — "Washington, the hero is come."

On his last night in Massachusetts, Washington was treated to a celebratory display of rockets and other fireworks.

The irony of the elaborate celebration of Washington during his Presidential visit was not lost on some, including Lucy Cranch, who wrote to her cousin Abigail Adams, "Was there ever any people who acted so inconsistently as some of ours do, to clamour and rave if there is a shaddow of power given their rulers and at the same time pay them homage in a manner that would disgrace the subjects of the Grand Turk?"

After several days of receptions and balls in Boston, Washington continued north to Marblehead, Salem, and Beverly. Here he was impressed by his visit to one of the new nation's first cotton mills. After dining in Ipswich, he lodged in Newburyport. On his last night in Massachusetts, Washington was treated to a celebratory display of rockets and other fireworks.

The next day, October 31st, the president was escorted with great fanfare to the New Hampshire border. He crossed the Merrimack River into a waiting throng of adoring New Hampshire citizens.

If You Go

Curbed Boston has mapped a trail of locations visited by Washington during his 1789 visit. They include the Old State House, the Warren Tavern, King's Chapel, and Faneuil Hall, among other well-known locations.

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Greater Boston region of Massachusetts.

Sources

George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress

"A Chilly Reception: President George Washington's Trip to Boston, October, 1789," in The Dial, Old South Meeting House Newsletter, Spring/Summer 2004.

Washington, George, Donald Jackson, and Dorothy Twohig. The diaries of George Washington. Volume 5: July 1786-December 1789. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, to 1979, 1976. Retrieved from the Library of Congress

Lucy Cranch to Abigail Adams, October 23, 1789. Founding Families: Digital Editions of the Papers of the Winthrops and the Adamses, ed.C. James Taylor. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2017.

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