George Washington Papers

From George Washington to the Corporation of Rhode Island College, 19 August 1790

To the Corporation of Rhode Island College

[19 August 1790]1


The circumstances which have, until this time, prevented you from offering your congratulations on my advancement to the station I hold in the Government of the United States, do not diminish the pleasure I feel in receiving this flattering proof of your affection & esteem.2 For which I request you will accept my thanks.

In repeating thus publicly my sense of the zeal you displayed for the success of the cause of your country, I only add a single suffrage to the general testimony which all who were acquainted with you in the most critical and doubtful moments of our struggle for Liberty & Independence, have constantly borne in your favor.

While I cannot remain insensible to the indulgence with which you regard the influence of my example & the tenor of my conduct; I rejoice in having so favorable an opportunity of felicitating the State of Rhode Island on the co-operation I am sure to find in the measures adopted by the guardians of literature in this place, for improving the morals of the rising generation, and inculcating upon their minds principles peculiarly calculated for the preservation of our rights & liberties. You may rely on whatever protection I may be able to afford in so important an object, as the education of our Youth.

I will now conclude, Gentlemen, by expressing my acknowledgments for the tender manner in which you mention the restoration of my health3 on a late occasion; and with ardent wishes that Heaven may prosper the literary Institution under your care, in giving you the best of its blessings in this World, as well as in the world to come.4

Go: Washington


According to William Loughton Smith, on 18 Aug. 1790, after a private dinner and tea at his lodgings at Abner Daggett’s Golden Ball Inn near the State House in Providence, GW was about to retire for the evening. “Just as the President was taking leave to go to bed, he was informed by Col. Peck . . . that the students of the College had illuminated it, and would be highly flattered at the President’s going to see it, which he politely agreed to do, though he never goes out at night and it then rained a little, and was a disagreeable night. We now made a nocturnal procession to the College, which indeed was worth seeing, being very splendidly illuminated” (Matthews, Journal of William L. Smith, description begins Albert Matthews, ed. Journal of William Loughton Smith, 1790–1791. Cambridge, Mass., 1917. Reprint from Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 51 (1917-18):20-88. description ends 37–38).

Rhode Island College (Brown University) was established by the Baptists at Warren, R.I., in 1764 and admitted its first class the following year. The college was moved to Providence in 1770, and during the Revolutionary War American and French troops used University Hall as a hospital and barracks. At its commencement exercises immediately following the president’s 1790 visit, the college awarded GW an honorary doctorate in absentia on 1 Sept. 1790 (United States Chronicle: Political, Commercial, and Historical [Providence], 2 Sept. 1790).

1Smith’s journal notes: “Thursday morning [19 Aug. 1790] began with heavy rain and cold easterly wind. It cleared at nine o’clock, and then the President, accompanied as before, began a walk which continued until one o’clock and which completely fatigued the company which formed his escort. We walked all around the Town, visited all the apartments of the College, went on the roof to view the beautiful and extensive prospect, walked to a place where a large Indiaman of 900 tons was on the stocks, went on board her, returned to town, stopped and drank wine and punch at Mr. Clarke’s, Mr. Brown’s, Gov. Turner’s [Fenner’s], and Gov. Bowen’s, and then returned home. As soon as the President was rested, he received the addresses of the Cincinnati, the Rhode Island College, and the Town of Providence, and then went immediately to dinner to the Town Hall” (Matthews, Journal of William L. Smith, description begins Albert Matthews, ed. Journal of William Loughton Smith, 1790–1791. Cambridge, Mass., 1917. Reprint from Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 51 (1917-18):20-88. description ends 38).

The original copy of Col. Jeremiah Olney’s address to GW on behalf of the state Society of the Cincinnati has not been found (he probably spoke extemporaneously), but one newspaper reported him as saying, “Sir, I have the Honour to wait upon your Excellency, with the Members of the Cincinnati of the State of Rhode-Island, assembled on this happy Occasion, to pay their Respects to you, in Person, and to congratulate you on your safe Arrival in this Town; wishing you the Enjoyment of Health, and Prosperity in the Government over which you preside. As many of the Gentlemen have not the Honour of a personal Acquaintance with your Excellency, with your Permission, Sir, I will introduce them.” GW is said to have replied, “It gives me great Pleasure to see so many of my old military Companions on the present Occasion, and I shall be happy to take them by the Hand.” The newspaper noted, “After a particular Introduction, the President expressed his most sincere Wishes for their Health and Prosperity” (Providence Gazette and Country Journal, 21 Aug. 1790).

Smith wrote, “The dinner consisted of 200 persons, and an immense crowd surrounded the hall. After dinner several toasts were drank; the second was ‘The President of the United States,’ at which the whole company within and without gave three huzzas and a long clapping of hands. The President then rose and drank the health of all the company. . . . Cannon was fired at each toast; at the conclusion of the toasts, the President rose, and the whole company, with a considerable crowd of citizens, walked down to the wharf, where he and his suite embarked for New York” (Matthews, Journal of William L. Smith, description begins Albert Matthews, ed. Journal of William Loughton Smith, 1790–1791. Cambridge, Mass., 1917. Reprint from Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 51 (1917-18):20-88. description ends 38–39).

The 21 Aug. 1790 issue of the Providence Gazette provides further details of the president’s second day in Providence. GW was escorted to University Hall by the students and college president James Manning, where he visited the library and museum. After examining John Brown and John Francis’s Indiaman, GW enjoyed an elegant entertainment at the courthouse beginning at three o’clock. The thirteen after-dinner toasts (the leadoff one being “The Congress of the United States”) not only included the usual social pleasantries but also reflected some of the political concerns of the gentlemen toastmasters: “An effectual Establishment of public Faith and private Credit,” “Faithfulness in the Collection, and Economy in the Expenditure, of the National Revenue,” and “May just national Views absorb local and particular Interests.” After giving “The Town of Providence,” GW arose from the table and embarked on the packet Hancock.

Smith parted from GW’s company at the wharf to undertake a tour of New England, and contemporary newspaper accounts of the president’s return to New York conflict. The New-York Daily Gazette, 23 Aug. 1790, reported, probably accurately, that GW and his party arrived in the city on Saturday afternoon, 21 Aug. 1790. Other newspapers stated that the presidential packet did not land until “Sunday last,” 22 August. Tobias Lear wrote on 22 Aug. to Thomas Jefferson that the president found Peter Delivet’s letter “on his arrival last evening” (DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters; Matthews, Journal of William L. Smith, description begins Albert Matthews, ed. Journal of William Loughton Smith, 1790–1791. Cambridge, Mass., 1917. Reprint from Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 51 (1917-18):20-88. description ends 39; Gazette of the United States [New York], 25 Aug. 1790; Pennsylvania Packet [Philadelphia], 28 Aug. 1790).

2At a special meeting held in the State House on 17 Aug. 1790, the Corporation of the College formally adopted an address to the president in anticipation of his visit to Providence. Signed by the corporation’s secretary David Howell, chancellor Jabez Bowen, and president James Manning, the undated address was presented to GW before dinner on 19 Aug. 1790 (Matthews, Journal of William L. Smith, description begins Albert Matthews, ed. Journal of William Loughton Smith, 1790–1791. Cambridge, Mass., 1917. Reprint from Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 51 (1917-18):20-88. description ends 38).

The address reads: “Though among the last to congratulate you on your advancement to that dignified & important Station to which the unanimous voice of a grateful country has called you, the Corporation of Rhode Island College claim to be among the first in warmth of affection for your person, & in esteem for your public character: In placing you at the head of the United States, regard was had no less to the influence of your example over the morals of the people, than to your talents in the administration of government; Happy are we to observe that similar motives have influenced your conduct in filling the subordinate Places in executive department. We most devoutly venerate that superintending Providence, which in the course of events propitious to this country, has called you forth to establish, after having defended our rights & liberties.

“Agitated in the hour of doubtful conflict, exulting in your victories, we watched your footsteps with the most anxious solicitude. Our fervent supplications to Heaven, that you might be furnished with that wisdom & prudence, necessary to guide us to freedom & independence, have been heard & most graciously answered. For the preservation of this freedom one great Object still demands our peculiar attention; the education of our Youth. your sentiments on this Subject ‘That knowledge is, in every country, the surest basis of public happiness, & the strongest barrier against the intruding hand of dispotism,’ As they perfectly accord with those of the most celebrated characters that ever adorn’d human nature; so they leave no room to apprehend you will refuse the wreath with which the guardians of literature, here, would entwine your brow.

“By restoring your health & protracting your life, so dear to this country, divine providence has, in a late instance, furnished to Millions matter of thanksgiving & praise. That you may long remain on earth a blessing to mankind & the Support of your country; that you may afterwards Receive the Rewards of virtue by having the approbation of God, is our most sincere desire & fervent Supplication” (DLC:GW).

3For GW’s illness of the previous spring and his recovery, see William Jackson to Clement Biddle, 12 May 1790, editorial note.

4Not only was GW’s trip to Rhode Island in the summer of 1790 “in almost every detail the easiest Washington had made in many years,” it was also a complete success (Freeman, Washington, description begins Douglas Southall Freeman. George Washington: A Biography. 7 vols. New York, 1948–57. description ends 6:275, 276). The Gazette of the United States (New York), 28 Aug. 1790, concluded it was “one of those events which makes the deepest and most pleasing impressions on the public mind; The people of that State had long wished for an opportunity to express their feelings, personally, to ‘the man who unites all hearts.”’ And the Pennsylvania Packet (Philadelphia), 28 Aug. 1790, elaborated: “This visit was gratifying to the citizens as it was unexpected. . . . There never was, perhaps, a greater exhibition of sincere public happiness than upon this occasion; every individual thought he beheld a friend and patron; a father or brother after a long absence; and, on his part, the President seemed to feel the joy of a father on the return of the prodigal son. We have little room to doubt that his visit to the state of Rhode Island will be productive of happy effects, for whatever aversion the citizens of that state may have hitherto had to the new government, they must now feel a confidence in the administration of one who possesses their universal esteem.”

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