Alexandria history is full of important national events. Among them is the first public appearance of the newly elected president George Washington on April 16, 1789.
George Washington served as President of the Constitutional Convention from May 1787 to September 1787. After the convention, the proposed Constitution went to each state for review and ratification. A minimum of nine states was needed for the Constitution to be formally adopted.
On Saturday, June 28, 1788, news spread to the city of Alexandria that her home state of Virginia had officially ratified the Constitution. Washington and his Alexandria neighbors were thrilled. Cannons exploded over the Potomac River. Washington traveled to town from Mount Vernon and celebrated at Wise's Tavern.
Among Washington's friends and Alexandrians, who voted "Yes" to ratify the Constitution, was Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee (then representing Westmoreland) and Charles Simms. Simms was a Revolutionary War veteran, future mayor of Alexandria, and one of Washington's six pallbearers. His remains are interred in Christ Church in Alexandria. Lee, who moved to Alexandria in 1810, was a famous Revolutionary War cavalry officer, three time Virginia governor, and father of Robert E. Lee. Lee was also a member of the House of Representatives when Washington died. He delivered the congressional eulogy in which he stated that Washington was "first in war, first in peace, first in the heart of his countrymen."
When the Constitution was ratified by the minimum nine states, Washington was the obvious front runner to become the nation's new president. Washington was somewhat reluctant to assume the role. He enjoyed his private life and home in Mount Vernon. However, with the urging of his friends including James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and the Marquis de Lafayette, Washington understood that the young American republic needed him. He was the leader of the American Revolution, and it made sense that he would continue his role as leader of the new government.
After a delayed Congressional quorum, the electoral votes were tallied on April 6, 1789. Washington was unanimously elected President of the United States. Congressional Secretary Charles Thomson rode to Mount Vernon to deliver the news.
After Washington's election, he began a trip to New York City for the inauguration and to serve in what was then the nation's capital city (Washington DC did not exist yet). The journey was a spectacle with parades and celebrations everywhere that Washington traveled.
His first stop was in Alexandria, Virginia on April 16, 1789. He dined at Wise's Tavern, which was the same tavern where he celebrated the Constitution's ratification. Wise's Tavern is an important historic location. Alexandria History Tours highlights Wise's Tavern as a central part not only in Alexandria history but also in American history.
Alexandria mayor Dennis Ramsay greeted Washington as a neighbor and friend. He led thirteen toasts to George Washington on April 16 and was one of the first officials to address Washington as "President" in a public gathering. Here is a portion of Ramsay's toast to Washington:
“Not to extol your glory as a Soldier—not to pour forth our gratitude for past services—not to acknowledge the justice of the unexampled honor which has been conferred upon you, by the spontaneous and unanimous suffrage of three millions of freemen, in your election to the supreme Magistracy—Not to admire the patriotism which directs your conduct—Do your neighbours and Friends now address you. Themes less splendid, but more endearing, impress our minds—The first and best of citizens must leave us—Our aged must lose their ornament! our Youth their model! our agriculture it’s Improver! our commerce it’s Friend! our infant Academy it’s Patron! our Poor their Benefactor! And the interior Navigation of the Potowmack—an event replete with the most extensive utility, already, by your unremitted exertions, brought into partial use—it’s Institutor and Promoter!
“Farewell! Go, and make a grateful People happy; a People, who will be doubly grateful when they contemplate this recent sacrifice for their interest.
“To that Being, who maketh and unmaketh at his will we commend you—and, after the accomplishment of the arduous business, to which you are called, may He restore to us again the best of men, and most beloved fellow-citizen”
Reading the first part, we can see how Ramsay and Alexandrians considered Washington an integral part of the local community. Alexandrians knew Washington personally and professionally. He was a patron of education through the Alexandria Academy. As a former member of the vestry at Truro Parish, he cared for the poor. He was working with Alexandria's businessmen to establish the Potomac Company. For these reasons, he was considered a neighbor and friend.
Almost a decade later, Mayor Dennis Ramsay would be one of George Washington's six pallbearers (along with Charles Simms). Ramsay's father William Ramsay was a trustee of Alexandria with George Washington.
Today, the Ramsay House serves as the Alexandria Visitor Center. Alexandria History Tours will walk visitors from the Ramsay House to dozens of historic spots throughout Alexandria to include Wise's Tavern. We highlight Wise's Tavern on one of our George Washington tours.
As I publish this post, it is April 30, 2023. On this day, 235 years ago, George Washington was inaugurated at Federal Hall in New York City. This event continues to be one of the most monumental moments in American history. Washington's journey to New York City began in Alexandria. After his presidency ended years later, he would return to Alexandria to celebrate again with his friends and neighbors.
From George Washington to the Mayor, Corporation, and Citizens of Alexandria, 16 April 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-02-02-0059
Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-05-02-0004-0006
Mount Vernon sources include: