George Washington’s own signed copy of his First Inaugural Address
WASHINGTON, GEORGE. The President’s Speech to Both Houses of Congress in The Massachusetts Magazine: or Monthly Museum of Knowledge and Rational Entertainment. Vol. I
Boston: Isaiah Thomas and Ebenezer T. Andrews, 1789
Contemporary calf, rebacked, rear board supplied, later endpapers, preserving Washington bookplate. Plates. Bound without pp. 59-62, 320-328, and one plate, not affecting Washington material. Browning and occasional spotting, a closed tear to the general title page.
This is George Washington’s own signed copy of his First Inaugural Address, from his library at Mount Vernon.
This famous address, marking the beginning of a new era in American history, addresses the great themes and issues of the day including the American Revolution, the Constitution, the need for a Bill of Rights, republican government, balance of powers, federalism, the danger of faction, consent of the governed, and more.
Confident that “the foundations of our National Policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality,” Washington observes that “there is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage, between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity.”
Washington recognizes the historical significance of the American experiment: “… the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”
The speech also echoes central themes of Washington’s public life dating back to his selection to command the Continental Army. These include his refusal to be paid for his services, his reluctance to leave his home at Mount Vernon, and his warning that he may be inadequate for the task at hand. Still, Washington heeds his nation’s call: “I was summoned by my Country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love.”
The National Archives selected Washington’s First Inaugural Address as one of the 100 landmark documents of American history. See Our Documents: 100 Milestone Documents from the National Archives (Oxford University Press, 2003), 39.
Washington assembled a library of more than 1000 volumes. The largely self-taught Virginian was a practical reader, using his library to educate himself on military matters, politics, history, agriculture, and current events. In 1771 Washington commissioned a London engraver to produce a bookplate with his name, family coat of arms, and the family motto exitus acta probat (“the end justifies the deed”). Washington had several hundred examples printed and put them in his more important books. This volume bears that bookplate, and like some of his most valuable books, it bears his signature on the title page.
Following Washington’s death in 1799, his library and papers passed to his nephew Bushrod Washington, an associate justice of the Supreme Court. When Martha Washington died in 1802, the bulk of the estate including Mount Vernon passed to Bushrod as well. He invited his friend John Marshall to come to Mount Vernon to make use of the papers and library in writing what became the monumental Life of George Washington (1804-7, 5 vols.). Marshall, who had recently been named chief justice of the United States, had known George Washington since the Revolutionary War. Marshall was an officer in a Virginia unit, and the two served together at Valley Forge, Brandywine, and Monmouth. Bushrod Washington famously was generous in sharing his uncle’s papers with visitors and evidently presented his friend and colleague John Marshall with this treasured volume during his stay at Mount Vernon.
Books from George Washington’s library have been highly sought for nearly two centuries. When Bushrod Washington died in 1829, the library was divided between his nephews. In 1834 George Corbin Washington sold the Washington papers and some books to the United States government. They are now at the Library of Congress. In 1847 he sold his remaining portion to bookseller Henry Stevens. Stevens ultimately sold those books to the Boston Athenaeum, where they remain. The inventory of Washington’s library made at his death includes the entry “No 118 Massachusetts Magazine, 2 vols 4.00.” One of those volumes is the 1791 volume now at Boston Athenaeum. The present volume containing the First Inaugural Address is the other. The other half of the library went to John Augustine Washington II, whose descendants ultimately sold them at auction in 1876. Most of those books have found their way into institutions, but a few remain in the hands of collectors.
The most recent major sales of books from Washington’s library have been a small group of inconsequential miscellaneous literary books sold for $1.2 million in 2013 and Washington’s copy of Acts Passed at a Congress of the United States (1789), sold to Mount Vernon for $9.8 million in 2012.
This volume, George Washington’s own copy of his First Inaugural Address, is among the most important books from Washington’s library remaining in private hands.
1. George Washington, with his signature and bookplate. Bequeathed to his nephew
2. Bushrod Washington, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Given to
3. John Marshall, chief justice of the United States and author of the first great biography of Washington. By descent to his granddaughter
4. Mary Ambler Marshall, wife of CSA Lt. Col. Lewis Minor Coleman, with her inscription on the front endpaper: “Lewis Minor Coleman, Jr. 1911 Presented by his grandmother M.A.M.C. from the library of his great-great-grandfather Chief Justice John Marshall.” Given to her grandson
5. Lewis Minor Coleman, Jr. By descent to
6. Charles Boyd Coleman, Jr.