George Washington’s 1st Inaugural Address Fragment Constitution Related Entirely in Washington’s Hand Authenticated By Jared Sparks
GEORGE WASHINGTON. Autograph Manuscript, being a fragment from Washington’s undelivered initial draft of his first inaugural address, 1p recto and verso, 7" x 2.5", [Mount Vernon], [circa January 1789]. The slightly toned manuscript has minor flaws, evident in the photos. Accompanied by an Autograph Letter Signed, "Jared Sparks", Cambridge, May 16, 1850, as Provenance.
Washington's manuscript, in full, “name a bye-word on the earth. Hence we were exposed to insurrection at home, and contempt abroad. Hence there were nations, which, in some measure excluded our Vessels from their Ports, checked our Commerce by”, and on the verso, "[igno]rant or wicked rested unconcerned. Even fearfulness siezed, in many instances, upon those well-meaning politicians, whose security had been produced by the Scantiness of their information & the confinement”. Along the left margin of the recto, Jared Sparks has penned, "Washington’s handwriting".
By the time Congress announced the official results of the first U.S. presidential election in April of 1789, Washington had long accepted the fact that he would be called to take the helm. It was an unwelcome prospect for the retired leader, who would describe his feelings on taking office as “not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.” In January 1789, Washington sent a lengthy draft of his proposed inaugural address to James Madison for review. Madison set the draft aside and completely rewrote the speech. It is Madison’s version that Washington delivered on April 30, 1789 to a joint session of Congress.
No complete transcript of the draft address is known. However, by examining surviving individual leaves and fragments of the draft, scholars discovered that a 1789 Independence Day oration delivered by David Humphreys, Washington’s personal secretary, was “a recasting of the ‘discarded inaugural'". Many of the passages…in Washington’s hand also appear there, edited to Humphreys’ third-party use…Humphreys in all probability obtained license to use the address once Washington had discarded it. The present document tracks closely with a passage in Humphreys’ oration (see addendum below). That textual connection, along with the physical attributes of the document, the fact that it is in Washington’s hand, and the Sparks provenance, clearly identify it as a previously unrecorded fragment from the inaugural draft.
In 1827, when Jared Sparks was at Mount Vernon collecting manuscripts for his edition of Washington’s writings, he came across the January 1789 letter in which Washington asked James Madison to review a draft of his proposed inaugural address. Along with the letter, Sparks found a copy of the address in Washington’s hand. "[T]here is preserved with [the letter] the copy of a message, or as he calls it, a speech, in his own hand, which I presume is the same that was sent to you for your revision, according to the request in his letter. The Speech…extends to seventy three pages, in which is included a short space for a prayer, that was to be introduced after the first paragraph..." Sparks indicated to Madison that he supposed David Humphreys was the author of the draft address. Noting that “no part of it seems to have been formally introduced in the real message”, Sparks observed that it was “an extraordinary production for a message to Congress, and it is happy, that Washington took counsel of his own understanding, and of his other friends, before he made use of this document”.
Madison, proud of his role in writing the shorter address that Washington actually delivered, reportedly believed the lengthy draft to be radical and inferior. He readily accepted the idea that Humphreys, an historian, poet, and Washington aide, was the real author. Over time, Sparks cut up Washington’s manuscript, and gave away leaves in response to requests “for something written by Washington". As he received more requests, Sparks began to cut it up further, giving away fragments of pages. He did not transcribe or keep copies of it, and did not include it in "The Complete Writings of George Washington", first published in 1839. For many decades, recipients of the leaves and fragments knew that they had a Washington manuscript, but the connection to the inaugural address was lost. Historians, unable to reassemble the text, largely accepted Sparks’ attribution to Humphreys. However, we believe that the weight of evidence argues against Humphreys being the sole author, and instead supports a collaborative authorship between Humphreys and Washington.
One key point of evidence is indisputable: all known parts of the original manuscript are in Washington's hand. The fact that Washington wrote it is, in our opinion, the best proof that he, at the least, had a hand in writing it. It seems highly unlikely that Washington would have taken the time to copy a lengthy manuscript authored entirely by someone else. It’s possible that Washington might have done so if he wished to spare Humphreys’ feelings by concealing the fact that he was asking an outside source (Madison) to review the proposed address, but it is very hard to believe that, in the course of copying it out, Washington made no corrections or edits. Yet the surviving pages and fragments appear to be taken from a final, clean copy, without the edits one would expect in a draft version. And, when compared with Humphreys’ Independence Day oration, the surviving fragments of the draft address reveal a number of deletions, additions, and edits, all suggesting the input of a collaborative author - Washington himself.
Scholar W.B. Allen notes that the differences between the draft address and the oration suggest that the original draft could not have reflected Humphreys’ work alone, “thereby bolstering our confidence that the ‘discarded inaugural’ reflects Washington’s own thoughts". Allen observes that the draft address is not only in Washington's hand, but also in his voice. He finds “echoes of its ideas throughout Washington’s correspondence". Having read hundreds of Washington letters and manuscripts, we agree.
At the time the draft address was written, in late 1788 or early 1789, Humphreys was in residence at Mount Vernon, poring through Washington’s papers in order to complete his biography of the great man. The surviving portion of his notes addressing Washington’s election to the presidency “contains direct quotes and paraphrases of private conversations” between the two men. By that time, Washington had already reviewed the first portion of Humphreys’ biography and submitted a manuscript list of notes and corrections; the author subsequently incorporated the changes. The working relationship between the two was clearly cordial and collaborative.
Of special interest is the content of this fragment. Based on its parallel in the Humphreys oration, we can conclude that the text on both sides is part of a passage discussing the dire circumstances of the United States prior to the adoption of the Constitution. Internal strife (Shays’s Rebellion, for example), commercial vulnerability, and international humiliation characterized the plight of the nation before the Constitution, the draft states. Only the ignorant, the wicked, or the well-meaning but uninformed could have ignored the crisis. Washington had long advocated for a stronger federal government, had served as president of the Federal Convention that drafted the Constitution, and was about to become the first elected leader under its authority. Thus, these words must have carried a very personal significance. As part of his draft inaugural address, they suggest that he felt a continued need to buttress support for the newly ratified form of government. What survives of the manuscript, Allen argues, makes “a manifest contribution to our knowledge of how far Washington’s understanding, as opposed to his image, contributed to the founding of the United States”. Rather than criticizing the text, Allen writes that if it could be completely reassembled, it would provide “a comprehensive statement of his [Washington’s] political understanding". In the end, we think Allen’s interpretation will win out.
Provenance: Jared Sparks, who published his multi-volume "Life and Writings of George Washington" in the 1830s, was given access to and possession of Washington manuscripts as he wrote the biography. He owned this manuscript and signature until “Miss Abby L. Davis” requested them in 1850. In the May 16, 1850 letter accompanying these documents, Sparks, writing from Harvard University as its president, tells Davis that, “I regret that it is not in my power to send you a more attractive specimen of Washington’s handwriting. Many of his autograph letters have been in my possession, but the collectors have long ago exhausted my stock. I enclose the best that I can furnish.”
Several fragments have recently changed hands at auction, but this was prior to the current uptick in the market, and those were without the all important accompanying letter from Sparks. Examples of those sale prices are $81,250 and $137,500.
Addendum: Excerpt from David Humphreys' 1789 Independence Day Oration, which parallels the content of the present Washington autograph manuscript fragment, "The confederacy was found to be a government in name rather than in reality. Hence the interest due on our public debts remained unpaid. Hence many a veteran was reduced to unmerited distress. Hence we were continually liable, on our own part, to have infractions made upon treaties, which were equally honourable, advantageous and sacred. Hence we were in danger of having our faith become as proverbial as that of Carthage, and our name the scorn of the earth. Hence there was a nation, which, in some measure, excluded our vessels from its ports, burdened our commerce with intolerable impositions, introduced its ships into our carrying trade, and, because we were destitute of a retaliating power, refused to enter into a commercial treaty with us. With a debt accumulating from the necessity of obtaining repeated loans; with a credit much impaired for the want of punctuality, and apprehension of national bankruptcy; with cries for justice from the widow, the fatherless, and the soldier worn out in his country's defence, ascending to that Being who hath purer eyes than to behold iniquity with impunity, who is a God of vengeance as well as a God of justice whither could we turn for succor? Where could we fly for refuge? The veil that concealed this melancholy and afflicting picture, was at last withdrawn. The, wise and the good stood astonished at the sight; none but the ignorant or the wicked rested unconcerned. Even fearfulness seized, in many instances, upon those well-meaning politicians whose security had been produced by the scantiness of their information, and the confinement of their views to the local advantages of the States to which they belonged. Then it was that men, better informed and more conversant in civil affairs, began to dread that a free, yet efficient government, the object which animated in life, and soothed in death, those heroes who had sealed their principles with their blood, must still be lost: that the prospect of national happiness, which invigorated our arms and cheered our hearts through the perilous struggle for independence, must vanish forever from our view: and that the hope of establishing the empire of reason, justice, philosophy, and religion, throughout the extensive regions of the new world, would be considered but the illusion of a heated imagination."
This item comes with a Certificate from John Reznikoff, a premier authenticator for both major 3rd party authentication services, PSA and JSA (James Spence Authentications), as well as numerous auction houses.
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