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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Great Experiment

By George Washington (1732–1799)

[From a Letter to Catharine Macaulay Graham.—New York, 9 January, 1790.]

IN the first place I thank you for your congratulatory sentiments on the event, which has placed me at the head of the American government, as well as for the indulgent partiality, which it is to be feared may have warped your judgment too much in my favor. But you do me no more than justice in supposing, that, if I had been permitted to indulge my first and fondest wish, I should have remained in a private station.

Although neither the present age nor posterity may possibly give me full credit for the feelings, which I have experienced on this subject, yet I have a consciousness that nothing short of an absolute conviction of duty could ever have brought me upon the scenes of public life again. The establishment of our new government seemed to be the last great experiment for promoting human happiness by a reasonable compact in civil society. It was to be in the first instance, in a considerable degree, a government of accommodation as well as a government of laws. Much was to be done by prudence, much by conciliation, much by firmness. Few, who are not philosophical spectators, can realize the difficult and delicate part, which a man in my situation had to act. All see, and most admire, the glare which hovers round the external happiness of elevated office. To me there is nothing in it beyond the lustre, which may be reflected from its connection with a power of promoting human felicity.

In our progress toward political happiness my station is new, and, if I may use the expression, I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely an action, the motive of which may not be subject to a double interpretation. There is scarcely any part of my conduct, which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent. Under such a view of the duties inherent in my arduous office, I could not but feel a diffidence in myself on the one hand, and an anxiety for the community, that every new arrangement should be made in the best possible manner, on the other. If, after all my humble but faithful endeavors to advance the felicity of my country and mankind, I may indulge a hope, that my labors have not been altogether without success, it will be the only real compensation I can receive in the closing scenes of life.