George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Samuel Magaw, 26 February 1791

To Samuel Magaw

[26 February 1791]

The President of the United States has received the invitation, addressed to him by a Committee of the American Philosophical Society, to an Eulogium, which the Society have directed to be pronounced to the Memory of their late worthy President Benjamin Franklin; and he will attend with pleasure, on an occasion which renders the Tribute of meritted Respect to the Memory of that distinguished Fellow Citizen.1


Samuel Magaw (1735–1812) graduated from the College of Philadelphia in 1757. He served as rector of St. Paul’s Church in Philadelphia from 1781 to 1804 and as vice-provost and professor of moral philosophy in the University of Pennsylvania from 1782 to 1791 (Butterfield, Rush Letters, description begins L. H. Butterfield, ed. Letters of Benjamin Rush. 2 vols. Princeton, N.J., 1951. description ends 1:350).

1The members of the American Philosophical Society had voted on 23 April 1790, two days after Franklin’s funeral, to have one of its members deliver a eulogy on the society’s founder and first president. In the election of an orator, however, the votes were evenly divided between David Rittenhouse and William Smith. No further efforts seem to have been made to hold the ceremony until 4 Feb. 1791, when a committee was appointed to call on Rittenhouse and Smith to receive an “answer with respect to the Eulogium.” On 18 Feb. 1791 this committee reported that “the Business is in forwardness” (“Early Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society . . . Compiled . . . from the Manuscript Minutes of Its Meetings from 1744 to 1838,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 22 [July 1885], 181, 188–89).

The invitation to GW has not been found, but on 25 Feb. 1791 a special meeting of the American Philosophical Society voted to invite the president, along with other federal and state officials, local dignitaries, and the citizens of Philadelphia to a public eulogy on Benjamin Franklin. The meeting appointed Magaw and four others to serve as a “Committee of Arrangements” to deliver invitations and to place a notice of the event in the public papers. The committee left an invitation for GW at his house on the morning of 26 Feb. 1791. The published minutes of the society note that GW’s reply was not signed, but was dated “Feby 26th 1791” and addressed to “The Revd Doctor Samuel Magaw” (ibid., 191). The eulogy was presented at the German Lutheran Church on Fourth Street at 9:30 A. M. on 1 Mar. 1791. GW was in attendance, along with Mrs. Washington, Vice President and Mrs. Adams, and other government officials. Jefferson and Hamilton, both elected members of the American Philosophical Society, marched with the other members from the society building to the church, where the assembled crowd heard the Rev. William Smith present a lengthy tribute to Franklin. An extended discussion of the eulogy and its broader political implications is in Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950—. description ends 19:97–101. The eulogy was subsequently published in pamphlet form as William Smith, Eulogium on Benjamin Franklin (Philadelphia, 1792). A copy of this pamphlet, inscribed on the title page “The President of the United States From the Author” is in the collection of GW’s books in the Boston Athenaeum (Griffin, Boston Athenæum Washington Collection, description begins Appleton P.C. Griffin, comp. A Catalogue of the Washington Collection in the Boston Athenæum. Cambridge, Mass., 1897. description ends 187).

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