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George Washington in Charleston, 1791
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It’s February, and President’s Day is just around the corner. This Federal holiday has officially existed since 1885, but it actually has much deeper roots. During the era of South Carolina’s colonial attachment to Great Britain, we routinely celebrated the King’s Birthday every year with military displays, feasting, and fireworks. That regal holiday disappeared during and after the American Revolution, of course, but in the mid-1780s it was quickly replaced by celebrations of the birthday of General George Washington, who became our first Federal president in 1789. That tradition was cemented, at least in the lowcountry of South Carolina, in the spring of 1791, when our nation’s first executive visited this area.
Entire books have been written about George Washington’s 1791 tour of the Southern states, and Terry Lipscomb has written an excellent booklet about the president’s trek through South Carolina. Rather than attempt to narrate that long and winding road, however, I’d like to focus on Washington’s visit to the city of Charleston. The president spent more time in this city than anywhere else during his southern tour, and here is where you can still see the sights Washington viewed, and follow in his footsteps around town. So, lace up your walking shoes, and let’s march back to the sunny spring of 1791.
George Washington’s visit to the lowcountry of South Carolina commenced at the North Carolina border on April 27th. After traversing through Horry County and what is now called the Grand Strand, he stopped in Georgetown on April 30th. The next day he travelled south to the Horry family plantation called Hampton, where he had an elegant breakfast with the family of Eliza Lucas Pinckney. He then continued southward, stopping at Joseph Manigault plantation at Awendaw Barony for the night. On the morning of Monday, May 2nd, President Washington visited Snee Farm, the country home of Governor Charles Pinckney, and then rode through the area we now call Mt. Pleasant to the ferry landing at Haddrell's Point.
From this point onward, Washington’s visit to Charleston is described in some detail in the surviving newspapers of that era. In particular, you’ll find that the Charleston City Gazette, of Saturday, May 14th, 1791, provides a long retrospective narrative of the president’s movements between Monday, May 2nd, and Monday, May 9th. The entire text of that narrative is rather long, a bit repetitive, and the language is a bit too flowery for modern ears, however, so I’d like to share with you some choice excepts and abstract the rest of the story.
“On Monday, the second instant, at two o’clock, p.m. the beloved and excellent George Washington, President of the United States of America, arrived in this city, with his suite, to the inexpressible satisfaction as well of strangers as of the citizens. Never, it may be said, were joy, love, affection and esteem more universal upon any one occasion.”
“Between 12 and 1 o’clock our amiable president embarked on board an elegant twelve-oared barge prepared for the purpose, and which anxiously waited his arrival at Haddrell’s point, accompanied by Major-General [William] Moultrie, Brigadier-Gen. [Charles Cotesworth] Pinckney, Major Edward Rutledge, Col. [William] Washington, the city recorder [John Bee] in his robes, Col. [John] Dart, and Mr. John Rutledge, jun. This illustriously freighted barge was rowed across Cooper river, from the place of embarkation to Charleston, by thirteen masters of American vessels . . . uniformly and elegantly dressed in close short jackets of light blue silk, black florentine breeches, white silk stockings with light blue silk bow-knots in their shoes, rose-wise; round black hats, with a light blue wide silk sash round the crowns, bearing an elegant impression of the arms of this state, beneath which was this well adapted inscription—‘Long Live the President.’”
“During the passage on the water, the gentlemen of the Amateur Society [, that is, men playing instruments], assisted by [vocalists] Mr. [Job] Palmer, Mr. James Badger, Mr. Jonathan Badger, and Mr. [John Hartley] Harris, with the choir of St. Philip’s church, performed a concert, vocal and instrumental, composed of pieces of music and choruses suited to the joyous occasion. . . . The grand spectacle exhibited by the presidential barge, which was distinguished from the rest by its ornaments, its rowers and the standard [or flag] of the United States, which was displayed at the bow upon a ground of blue silk, accompanied by upwards of forty rowing and sailing boats, filled every joyous, feeling breast ashore with sensations which we will not venture to describe, from a conviction of our being inadequate to the task.”
“At Prioleau’s Wharf [at the east end of Queen Street,] stairs were erected, covered with green cloth, where the president was received on his landing by [Arnoldus Vanderhorst] the Intendant [or mayor] and Wardens [or City Council members] of the city, with their wands [wooden staffs], attended by their officers; also by the governor [Charles Pinckney], lieutenant-governor [Isaac Holmes] and civil officers of the state; with an innumerable concourse of citizens, who welcomed the chief magistrate of the United States with reiterated acclamations—the bells of St. Michael’s rang a joyful peal—and the Charleston Battalion of Artillery fired a federal salute. On his landing, the Intendant addressed him [the president] as follows: ‘The Intendant and Wardens beg leave, sir, to welcome you to this city. It will be their care to make your stay agreeable. They have provided accommodations for yourself and suite, to which they will be happy to conduct you.’ The President replied, that he was ready to attend them, and would follow.”
The militia company of German Fusiliers, “which was drawn up at the place of landing, then opened their files and enclosed the . . . procession, which moved towards the Exchange, with colors flying, drums beating and fifes playing.” During the short walk down East Bay Street, Washington removed his hat and bowed to the left and to the right as he passed through the crowded street.
“Here we must observe, that there was such a concourse of all ranks on board of the several vessels hauled close to the shore, as is almost beyond description. From superannuated old age to lisping infancy the crowd was so great there was scarce room to move. On the illustrious personage’s approach to the shore such a buzz of approbation—such a shout of joy took place, as that one must see and hear all to have anything like an adequate idea of it. The shore, the streets, the windows, the balconies—all were so crowded, so beset with spectators, that the most attentive observer must fail in an attempt to do justice to the splendid aspect of the whole.”
“Being arrived at the Exchange, the president was conducted to the platform within the grand balustrade of the Exchange, fronting Broad-street, where he stood to await the salutes and discharges from the field artillery disposed and planted for that purpose, as well as to see the order of procession go by in review, when he returned all those salutations of respect which were rendered to him as it passed along.”
“The order of procession was then reversed, and the president was escorted up Broad-street, while he with the greatest politeness and attention bowed uncovered [that is, he removed his hat and bowed] to the brilliant assemblage of spectators of both sexes, to the right and to the left . . . till he arrived at the elegant habitation in Church-street destined for his reception, which was ornamented in front by lamps, and over the portal a triumphal arch decorated with laurel, flowers, &c. [That house, called the Heyward-Washington House, is now opened to the public by the Charleston Museum.] He there received the warm congratulations of several of the most respectable characters in the state, and was individually introduced to the corporation, the members of the [Society of the] Cincinnati and the officers of the Charleston Battalion of Artillery. At five o’clock he dined with his excellency the governor, at his house in Meeting-street, with a small company of respectable gentlemen.”
Tuesday, May 3
President Washington rested at Thomas Heyward’s house in Church Street, during the first part of the day, and then received a number of guests. “At three o’clock in the afternoon the Intendant and Wardens of this city, attended by their proper officers, waited upon the president, at his house.” The intendant, made a brief public address to the president, and Washington made a brief, cordial reply. “At half past three o’clock, the merchants [of Charleston] went in a body” to visit the president. Edward Darrell, on behalf of the city’s mercantile community, made a brief address to the president, and Washington made a brief, cordial reply.
“At four o’clock the city corporation gave an elegant entertainment to the President of the United States, in the Exchange, which had been recently fitted up and decorated in a very sumptuous style, to which were invited, the governor, lieutenant-governor and officers of the state, union and city, consuls of foreign powers, and reverend clergy, members of the Cincinnati, officers of the militia, gentlemen strangers [that is, gentlemen tourists], and a number of respectable citizens. . . . Over the president’s head was fabricated in very ingenious workmanship, a beautiful triumphal arch, from which was suspended a wreath of laurel.”
After dinner, the assembled dignitaries and guests drank a series of sixteen toasts, including two by the president: “the State of South Carolina,” and “the City of Charleston, and prosperity to it.” Outside the walls of the Exchange, “each [toast was] attended by a discharge of cannon from the Charleston Battalion of Artillery. . . . The shipping in the harbor displayed all their colors, throughout the day—and St. Michael’s bells echoed forth their joyous peals.”
Wednesday, May 4
“Early in the morning, the president, accompanied by [senator] Mr. [Ralph] Izard, Major-General Moultrie, Brigadier-General Pinckney, Major [Edward] Rutledge and Major [William] Jackson [Washington’s secretary], viewed the remains of the lines and batteries which had been thrown up for the defence of the city when attacked by the British fleet and army, under Sir Henry Clinton and Admiral Arbuthnot, in the year 1780: And after riding over the ground on which they had been erected, and reconnoitering the places where the enemy had opened their trenches, placed their batteries, and made their parallels and approaches, he was pleased to express great satisfaction at the very gallant defence that had been made by the garrison during the siege.”
“At four o’clock in the afternoon, the Society of the Cincinnati gave a very sumptuous dinner to their illustrious president-general, in McCrady’s long-room, which was handsomely embellished with laurel, flowers and shrubbery.” After dinner, the party drank a series of fifteen toasts, each “succeeded by a discharge from the field pieces of the Charleston Battalion of Artillery. A choir of singers entertained the company with several pieces of vocal music, and the day was spent in social festivity.”
“In the evening a splendid ball was given by the city corporation at the city hall [in the Exchange], which was elegantly illuminated, furnished and dressed with chaplets of laurel and flowers. The president honored it with his presence, and there was a numerous and brilliant assemblage of ladies and a great number of gentlemen present; the ladies were all elegantly dressed, and most of them wore ribbons and girdles with different inscriptions expressive of their respect and esteem for the president, such as ‘Long live the president,’—‘He lives the guardian of his country’s rights’—‘Virtue and valor united’—‘Rejoice the hero’s come’—‘Shield, oh! shield him from all harm,’ &c. and at proper places, handsome medallions of the president, encircled with spangles and other ornaments. Their fans also exhibited many fanciful and ingenious emblems and inventions, on one of which appeared a representation of Fame crowning the president with a wreath of laurel. Joy, satisfaction and gratitude illumed every countenance and reveled in each heart, whilst the demonstrations of grateful respect shewn him appeared to give him the most heartfelt satisfaction, which visibly displayed itself in his countenance.”
“At half past ten, the company sat down to supper; at the table were seated more than 250 ladies, besides gentlemen. The brilliancy of the company and elegance of the supper surpassed all conception. The [German Fusilier] company was drawn up before the Exchange to preserve order, and being in handsome uniform, exhibited a very pleasing appearance: In short, every circumstance of the evening’s entertainment was truly picturesque of the most pleasing elegance.”
Thursday, May 5
President Washington and his entourage visited Fort Johnson, on James Island, “where they were politely received by Capt. [Michael] Kalteisen, the commandant, who had prepared an exceeding good breakfast for them.” After touring the fort and admiring its commanding view of the harbor, they proceeded to Sullivan’s Island to examine the remains of the Fort Moultrie, its neighboring batteries, and the bridge built by Gen. Christopher Gadsden, all of which were all destroyed by a hurricane in 1783. General William Moultrie led Washington across the landscape and explained the situation and the difficulties his troops faced on “the glorious 28th of June, 1776,” when they defeated the British squadron under the command of Sir Peter Parker. “The commissioners of pilotage had prepared on that island an excellent collation, which after the president and the gentlemen that accompanied him had partaken of, they returned to town, about two o’clock, the president expressing the great satisfaction he had received from this morning’s excursion.”
At four o’clock in the afternoon, Governor Pinckney gave “a public entertainment” at his house in Meeting-street, for the president “and the gentlemen of the civil, clerical and military professions, &c. &c.” Again, the party drank a series of patriotic toasts after the meal.
“In the evening there was a concert in the city hall, (given by the St. Cæcilia Society, the Amateur [Society] politely affording their assistance). On this occasion the hall had received considerable alterations. An amphitheater was erected on which was seated a grand and brilliant assembly of near 400 ladies. So much beauty and elegance were never before displayed in this country—it was truly worthy of the occasion. The pillars were ingeniously entwined with laurel, and in different parts of the hall” were displayed a number of patriotic mottos. “The company were enlivened and dignified by the presence of the President of the United States, and a great number of the most distinguished characters of this state. A number of excellent pieces of music were performed in an handsome orchestra, accompanied in the vocal strain by the choir of St. Philip’s Church.”
Friday, May 6
“The president, this day, dined in a private manner, with the hon. Major Butler, a senator from this state to the Congress of the United States. There was present a select party of respectable gentlemen. In the evening, his excellency the governor gave a ball at his house in Meeting-street, where were present the President of the United States, and a respectable company of ladies and gentlemen. The ladies were elegantly and richly dressed, and some of them appeared with the following couplet, in large gold letters, inscribed on their ribbons: ‘Health to Columbia’s noblest son, Her light and shield—great Washington.’”
Saturday, May 7
“The President of the United States, accompanied by [Senator] Pierce Butler . . . Gen. Moultrie, Gen. Pinckney, Major E[dward]. Rutledge, and the attorney-general of this state, conducted by his honor the intendant, visited the Orphan House [at the southwest end of Ellery Street]; where he was received by John Mitchell, John Robertson, Richard Cole, Thomas Corbett, Samuel Beekman, and Charles Lining, commissioners. Mr. [Mark-Anthony] Besselieu having attended with the boys under his tuition. The commissioners laid the ordinance for establishing the Orphan House, the rules of the house, the journals of the proceedings of the board and the register, before the president for his perusal; he was pleased to express the highest approbation of the institution. The children being assembled in the breakfast room, to the number of 107, with the mistress, steward, assistant and nurses, in their proper places; his honor the Intendant and the other commissioners, conducted the president, and the gentlemen who attended him, to the room. On taking leave of the children, he very pathetically pronounced his benediction on them. A genteel breakfast was provided in the commissioners’ room. On his departure he took a polite leave of the commissioners, wishing them success in their laudable and benevolent endeavors.”
“The president also visited St. Michael’s Church, went up the steeple to the second balcony, where he had a view of the city, harbor, rivers, and the adjacent country, with which he was much pleased.”
“A sumptuous entertainment was given by the merchants of this city to the President of the United States, in the Exchange, at which were present, by invitation, his excellency the governor, his honor the lieutenant-governor, the senators and representatives of this state in Congress, his honor the intendant, the wardens, with the federal, state and city officers, all the members of both houses of assembly for Charleston district who were in town, the clergy of every denomination, and many respectable strangers.”
“They assembled to the number of upwards of three hundred, [upstairs] in the city-hall; on the president’s arrival the ship America, of this place, (being moored off the Exchange) fired a federal salute. About half past four the company sat down to an elegant dinner [downstairs], which was furnished with every delicacy that the country and season could afford. The wines were excellent and in great variety.” As usual, dinner was followed by a series of patriotic toasts, including one offered by President Washington: “The commercial interest of Charleston.” “At each of which the America fired 13 guns.”
“At eight o’clock the president retired [upstairs] to the city hall, from whence he had a view of the fireworks displayed on board the ship, which was illuminated with lanterns, amidst the letters V. W. (Vivat Washington) were strikingly conspicuous.
“The walls of the Exchange were beautifully decorated with flowers and shrubbery, wreaths of laurel encircling the arches; over the president’s head was exhibited an emblematical painting, representing commerce distributing plenty over the globe. Opposite under the center arch, was suspended a ship in miniature; handsomely decorated, & furnished with lamps to the number of one hundred and thirty-six, which in the evening, were lighted up: this at once discovered a beautifully emblematical figure, and formed a most happy substitute for a brilliant chandelier; on her stern was painted, ‘The Commerce of Charleston,’ and the repeated acclamations of the company testified their wishes to her success.”
Sunday, May 8
“The president, in the forenoon, accompanied by the intendant and wardens, and city officers, the governor, lieutenant-governor, and several respectable characters, attended divine service at St. Philip’s Church; and in the afternoon, in like manner, at St. Michael’s. After service he dined, at a private dinner, with the Hon. Major-Gen. Moultrie.”
Monday, May 9
“This morning, at six o’clock, the President of the United States set out from this city, for Savannah, in Georgia. He was escorted to Ashley ferry by his excellency the governor, honorable Mr. Izard, honorable Major Butler, members of the Cincinnati, and officers of the militia, all mounted on horseback. At Boundary street [, now Calhoun Street,] they were met by the intendant and wardens of the city, where the president was addressed by his honor the intendant as follows:”
“‘Sir, The Intendant and Wardens, in behalf of themselves and their constituents, beg leave to offer you their unfeigned thanks for the visit with which you have honored this city; and they are hopeful it will not be the last. They sincerely wish you a pleasant tour and happy return to your mansion: and may health, that greatest of all temporal blessings, attend you.’”
“To which the president was pleased to reply, ‘Sir, I beg you will accept and offer my best thanks to the corporation and the citizens of Charleston, for their very polite attention to me. Should it ever be in my power, be assured, it will give me pleasure to visit again this very respectable city.’”
“He then took his leave of the corporation, and the whole cavalcade, joined by the intendant, moving on, they were saluted with a federal discharge from the field pieces of the Charleston Battalion of Artillery, and a volley of musketry by the [German Fusilier] company, who were drawn up at some distance from the skirts of the city.”
The entourage rode northward across Charleston Neck, then headed southwest towards the crossing over the Ashley River we now know as Bee’s Ferry, where there was actually a bridge in 1791.
“On Ashley bridge, over which they passed, a triumphal arch was constructed, adorned with flowers, laurel, &c. and at Mr. [John] Fraser’s [tavern] on the south side of the bridge, they partook of a breakfast provided for them. After which the president pursued his journey, taking an affectionate farewell of his escort, all of whom returned, except his excellency the governor, Hon. Mr. Izard and Major Butler, and generals Moultrie and Pinckney, who continued with him for some distance.”
George Washington’s southern tour continued from the Ashley River southward to Sandy Hill plantation, where the lodged overnight with his cousin, Colonel William Washington. The next morning, May 10th, the president stopped for breakfast at Thomas Bee's place near Jacksonboro, then spent the night at O'Brien Smith's plantation called Duharra, between the Ashepoo and Combahee Rivers. Washington then travelled southward through Pocotaligo and Purrysburg before finally crossing the Savannah River into Georgia.
President George Washington’s visit to South Carolina in 1791 made a lasting impression on the people of Charleston and the Lowcountry. To many who lived during that time, Washington was a faceless character about whom they had heard and read much. His presence here gave many people a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see with their own eyes the hero of the Revolution, the Commander-in-Chief, the nation’s first Federal executive. Since that time, the phrase “Washington slept here” has become a hackneyed expression. It seems that everywhere he went and everything he touched has been venerated ad nauseam. As we celebrate the Federal holiday of Washington’s Birthday in February, however, I invite you to make an effort to remember him as the people of Charleston did in 1791—with a sense of wonder at the man who lead this nation through the dark days of Revolution to the great reward of independence.