George Washington Papers

From George Washington to John Adams, 10 May 1789

To John Adams

[New York, 10 May 1789]

The President of the United States wishes to avail himself of your sentiments on the following points.

1st Whether a line of conduct, equally distant from an association with all kinds of company on the one hand and from a total seclusion from Society on the other, ought to be adopted by him? and, in that case, how is it to be done?

2d What will be the least exceptionable method of bringing any system, which may be adopted on this subject, before the Public and into use?

3d Whether, after a little time, one day in every week will not be sufficient for receiving visits of Compliment?

4th Whether it would tend to prompt impertinent applications & involve disagreeable consequences to have it known, that the President will, every Morning at 8 Oclock, be at leisure to give Audiences to persons who may have business with him?

5th Whether, when it shall have been understood that the President is not to give general entertainment in the manner the Presidents of Congress have formerly done, it will be practicable to draw such a line of discrimination in regard to persons, as that Six, eight or ten official characters (including in the rotation the members of both Houses of Congress) may be invited informally or otherwise to dine with him on the days fixed for receiving Company, without exciting clamours in the rest of the Community?

6th Whether it would be satisfactory to the Public for the President to make about four great entertainmts in a year on such great occasions as—the Anniversary of the Declaration of Independ⟨ence,⟩ the Alliance with France—the Peace ⟨with Great⟩ Britain—the Organization of the gener⟨al govern⟩ment: and whether arrangements of ⟨these two⟩ last kinds could be in danger of divert⟨ing too⟩ much of the Presidents time from bus⟨iness, or⟩ of producing the evils which it was in⟨tended to⟩ avoid by his living more recluse than ⟨the Presidents⟩ of Congress have heretofore lived.

7th Whether there would be any impropriety in the Presidents making informal visits—that is to say, in his calling upon his Acquaintances or public Characters for the purposes of sociability or civility—and what (as to the form of doing it) might evince these visits to have been made in his private character, so as that they might not be construed into visits from the President of the United States? and in what light would his appearance rarely at Tea parties be considered?

8th Whether, during the recess of Congress, it would not be advantageous to the interests of the Union for the President to make the tour of the United States, in order to become better acquainted with their principal Characters & internal Circumstances, as well as to be more accessible to numbers of well-informed persons, who might give him useful informations and advices on political subjects?

9th If there is a probability that either of the arrangments may take place, which will eventually cause additional expenses, whether it would not be proper that these ideas should come into contemplation, at the time when Congress shall make a permanent provision for the support of the Executive.


On the one side no augmentation can be effected in the pecuniary establishment which shall be made, in the first instance, for the support of the Executive—on the other, all monies destined to that purpose beyond the actual expenditures, will be left in the Treasury of the United States or sacredly applied to ⟨the prom⟩otion of some national objects.

Many things which appear of little imp⟨ortance in⟩ themselves and at the beginning, may have ⟨great and⟩ durable consequences from their having be⟨en establis⟩hed at the commencement of a new general ⟨Govern⟩ment. It will be much easier to comme⟨nce the adm⟩inistration, upon a well adjusted system ⟨built on⟩ tenable grounds, than to correct errors or alter inconveniences after they shall have been confirmed by habit. The President in all matters of business & etiquette, can have no object but to demean himself in his public character, in such a manner as to maintain the dignity of Office, without subjecting himself to the imputation of superciliousness or unnecessary reserve. Under these impressions, he asks for your candid and undisguised opinions.

ADf, DLC:GW; LB, MHi: Adams Family Papers.

Although the letter-book copy in the Adams Papers is the only version that has been found of a receiver’s copy of GW’s queries on protocol for his new administration, he evidently posed the same or similar questions to Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay, and Robert R. Livingston. The matter was of some importance because GW soon found that he must take drastic steps to avoid having the time that he needed for official business frittered away in social activities. A major concern was the public image of the new administration. As Sen. William Maclay of Pennsylvania noted, GW “stood on as difficult ground as he ever had done in his life: that to suffer himself to be run down, on the one hand, by a crowd of visitants so as to engross his time, would never do, as it would render the doing of business impracticable; but, on the other hand, for him to be seen only in public on stated times, like an Eastern Lama, would be equally offensive. If he was not to be seen but in public, where nothing confidential could pass between him and any individual, the business would, to all appearance, be done without him, and he could not escape the charge of favoritism. All court would be paid to the supposed favorite; weakness and insignificance would be considered as characteristic of the President, and he would not escape contempt. . . . it was not thus the General gained the universal plaudits of his admiring fellow-citizens” (Maclay, Journal, description begins Charles A. Beard, ed. The Journal of William Maclay: United States Senator from Pennsylvania, 1789–1791. 1927. Reprint. New York, 1965. description ends 15). GW’s final “line of conduct” consisted of one levee a week, on Tuesday afternoon, at first beginning at 2:00 P.M. and then, after 26 May, 3:00 P.M. It was announced as early as 2 May in the Gazette of the United States (New York) that “visits of compliment on other days, and particularly on Sunday, will not be agreeable to him.” The president refused all invitations, although, with Samuel Fraunces operating efficiently as household steward and chef, there were usually guests at his own table for dinner, and official dinners were held on Thursdays (Decatur, Private Affairs of George Washington, description begins Stephen Decatur, Jr. Private Affairs of George Washington: From the Records and Accounts of Tobias Lear, Esquire, his Secretary. Boston, 1933. description ends 39). He allowed himself frequent evenings at the theater, a pastime he particularly enjoyed, and he usually appeared at Mrs. Washington’s levees, which were held on Fridays. GW later described the reasons that “compelled me to allot a day for the reception of idle and ceremonious visits (for it never has prevented those of sociability and friendship in the afternoon, or any other time) but if I am mistaken in this, the history of this business is simply and shortly as follows—Before the custom was established, which now accommodates foreign characters, Strangers, and others who from motives of curiosity, respect, to the Chief Magistrate, or any other cause, are induced to call upon me—I was unable to attend to any business whatsoever; for Gentlemen, consulting their own convenience rather than mine, were calling from the time I rose from breakfast—often before—until I sat down to dinner—This, as I resolved not to neglect my public duties, reduced me to the choice of one of these alternatives, either to refuse them altogether, or to appropriate a time for the reception of them—The first would, I well knew, be disgusting to many—The latter, I expected, would undergo animadversion, and blazoning from those who would find fault, with, or without cause. To please every body was impossible—I therefore adopted that line of conduct which combined public advantage with private convenience, and which in my judgment was unexceptionable in itself” (GW to David Stuart, 15 June 1790).

Writing to George Augustine Washington at Mount Vernon on 3 May 1789, Tobias Lear described the first days of the president in New York: “Upon my arrival in this place I found that Congress had directed the house occupied by the former President of Congress, to be prepared for the reception of the President of the United States—it was then in a state of the greatest confusion—pulling down—putting up—making better & making worse—however, by spirited exertions, it was got into good order by the arrival of the President—and a little noise which we have since been subjected to—has made a good house of it. We have engaged Black Sam Frances as Steward & superintendent of the Kitchen, and a very excellent fellow he is in the latter department—he tosses up such a number of fine dishes that we are distracted in our choice when we set down to table, and obliged to hold a long consultation upon the subject before we can determine what to attack. Oysters & Lobsters make a very conspicuous figure upon the ta⟨ble⟩ and never go off untouched. Tell Madam Washington this—a⟨mutilated⟩ hope it will have some effect (as she is remarkably fond of these fish) ⟨mutilated⟩ hasten her advancing towards New York—for we are extreemly desirous of seeing her here. We have likewise engaged, & put into livery, two handsome footmen & a Porter, Frances furnishes the assistance in the Kitchen—we have a maid who makes the beds &c.—so you see the family is as regularly settled as if we had been here for twelve months—We have no company to eat or drink with us—but hitherto there has been the greatest abundance from 9 A.M. to 3 P.M. to pay their etiquettical conger. This has employed all the intermediate time of 9 & 3—and the other hours have been allotted to business & returning some particular & necessary visits so that there has been not a moment unemployed. However since the introduction of the President to his Office the days of receiving visits of cerimony are confined to Tuesdays & Fridays—persons who have business to transact may make their appearance at any time—this regulation is a very necessary & a very good one—it answers two valuable ends—it allows a sufficient time for dispatching the business of the Office—and it gives a dignity to the President by not obliging him to expose himself every day to impertinent or curious intruders. It seems at present to be the prevailing sentiment that the President of the United States should not make entertainments nor return formal visits. This certainly is consistent with reason & propriety; for if he should invite to dinners it would be almost impossible to draw the line of invitations so as to confine them to a reasonable number—distinctions must be made—and those distinctions would create disgusts, which might end in serious consequences. Should he undertake to return visits, his whole time must be employed in that business—and the affairs of his Office left to the mercy of ministers or Secretaries—You & I, my dear Major, know the habits of this great & good man too well to suppose that he would ever neglect business for ceremony. We wish to know how these arrangments are thought of in the different parts of the United States & particularly among those who have not been friendly to the Government, as ⟨mutilated⟩e of this discription live in your neighbourhood—cannot you let us ⟨mutilated⟩ what is said of it—& also of other matters respecting the Govt & its Administration? Your time, my dear fr⟨ien⟩d, I know is too much employed for you to investigate or to inform of these matters, and as the Ladies are very expert at this business—suppose Mrs Washington should do it? I know of no person better qualified—her very serious & benevolent countenance would not suffer a person to hide a thing from her, which would be kept from another whose countenance did not say so much in their favour. Now I would give a great deal to be present when you inform Mrs Washington of this—or read it to her. If she ever put on a frown it would be on this occasion—What does he mean! she will exclaim! Does he wish to make a spy of me? Who knows, if I should engage in this business, but that I might be brought before a high tribunal and accused of treason—and, Lord have mercy upon me! be executed. . . . but seriously, information of this kind, to me, would be grateful” (NcD).

GW was well aware at the beginning of May 1789 that public attention was alert to any suggestion of pomp surrounding the president. Congress had already taken up the question of what titles, if any, should be annexed to the office of president and vice president. There was considerable support in some quarters for such grandiose titles as “His Elective Majesty” and “His Mightiness,” and newspapers joined eagerly in the fray. John Fenno’s obsequious use of titles in the Gazette of the United States in describing social functions aroused the ire of “true Whigs,” who feared it presaged the establishment of a royal court. For a typical comment, see the Daily Advertiser (New York), 15 June 1789. “Let us . . . lisp nothing but the pure names of men,” “Argus” declared in the Massachusetts Centinel (Boston); “plain John Anybody should be our address” (reprinted in the Gazette of the United States, 8 July 1789). On 23 April the Senate appointed a committee to consider the question of titles, and over the next three weeks a disproportionate amount of the time of both the Senate and the House was devoted to the issue. Maclay contended that “this whole silly business” was the work of John Adams, Richard Henry Lee, and Ralph Izard. Probably Maclay well captured the tone of the debates in his description of the Senate proceedings on 8 May: “‘Excellency’ was moved for as a title by Mr. Izard. It was withdrawn by Mr. Izard, and ‘highness’ with some prefactory word, proposed by Mr. Lee. Now long harangues were made in favor of this title. ‘Elective’ was placed before. It was insisted that such a dignified title would add greatly to the weight and authority of the Government both at home and abroad. I declared myself totally of a different opinion; that at present it was impossible to add to the respect entertained for General Washington; that if you gave him the title of any foreign prince or potentate, a belief would follow that the manners of that prince and his modes of government would be adopted by the President. (Mr. Lee had, just before I got up, read over a list of the titles of all the princes and potentates of the earth, marking where the word ‘highness’ occurred. The Grand Turk had it, all the princes of Germany had [it], sons and daughters of crown heads, etc.) That particularly ‘elective highness,’ which sounded nearly like ‘electoral highness,’ would have a most ungrateful sound to many thousands of industrious citizens who had fled from German oppression. . . . The debate lasted till half after three o’clock, and it ended in appointing a committee to consider of a title to be given to the President” (Maclay, Journal, description begins Charles A. Beard, ed. The Journal of William Maclay: United States Senator from Pennsylvania, 1789–1791. 1927. Reprint. New York, 1965. description ends 24). The title question was settled, at least officially, on 14 May when the Senate committee reported that in its opinion it would be proper to address the president as “His Highness the President of the United States of America, and Protector of their Liberties.” Later in the day, however, the Senate compromised with the opinion of the House: “From a decent respect for the opinion and practice of civilized nations, whether under monarchical or republican forms of government, whose custom is to annex Titles of respectability to the Office of their Chief Magistrate; and that, on intercourse with foreign nations, a due respect for the majesty of the people of the United States, may not be hazarded by an appearance of singularity; the Senate have been induced to be of opinion, that it would be proper to annex a Respectable Title to the Office of President of the United States: But the Senate, Desirous of Preserving Harmony with the House of Representatives, where the practice lately observed in presenting an address to the President was without the addition of Titles, think it proper for the present to act in conformity with the practice of that House:—Therefore Resolved, that the present address be—‘To the President of the United States’—without addition of Title” (De Pauw, Documentary History of the First Federal Congress, description begins Linda Grant De Pauw et al., eds. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, March 4, 1789-March 3, 1791. 20 vols. to date. Baltimore, 1972—. description ends 1:45).

Index Entries