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George Washington Was No Stranger To Rhode Island

George Washington
George Washington Inaugural Address Etching – Courtesy Pima County Public Library

George Washington visited the country’s smallest state four times between 1756 and 1790 and according to historians received his fondest public reception in Newport.

On the birthday of America’s first president we take a look at his visits to the Ocean State.

February 1756

Colonel George Washington looks to have made his first visit to Rhode Island while traveling to Boston to discuss issues related to his rank with Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts.

He stayed  and dined at his old friend Col. Godfrey Malbone’s house (which is the oldest mansion in Newport). Washington is accompanied on this trip by Captains George Mercer and Robert Stewart of the Virginia Regiment, as well as his two hired servants, John Alton and Thomas Bishop.

The party left Alexandria, Virginia, on February 4, 1756, and travelled through Philadelphia, New York, and New London. While in New London, they stayed at the home of a friend, Joseph Chew, where they left their horses.1

April 1776

On Monday, April 15, 1776, George Washington wrote to inform the President of Congress that he had left his headquarters at Cambridge, Massachusetts on April 4th, headed for New York City.

En route, Washington passed through Providence, Rhode Island, and Norwich, and New London, in Connecticut, “in order to see and expedite the embarkation of the Troops.”2

Washington was in Providence on the morning of April 6, 1776, preparing to continue his journey, when he wrote to Rhode Island governor Nicholas Cooke, relaying his compliments to both him and the “Gentlemen of Providence.”

Washington noted that he would accept the “polite invitation” he received from the governor and his associates.3

February 12, 1781

On this date, French forces in Newport staged one of the first recorded public celebration of George Washington’s birthday. The Comte de Rochambeau wrote to Washington to say that:

“Yesterday was the anniversary of your Excellency’s birth day. We have put off celebrating that holiday till to-day, by reason of the Lord’s day and we will celebrate it with the sole regret that your Excellency will be not a Witness of the effusion and gladness of our hearts.”

Among the “effusions” of the day were a parade by the French troops, an artillery salute, and a reprieve from work.4

Malbone Castle
Malbone_Castle, Newport, RI, 1859 – Knickerbocker Magazine 1859
March 1781

George Washington went to Newport, Rhode Island in March of 1781 to meet with the Comte de Rochambeau, the acting French admiral Destouches, and all the senior French officers prior to the departure of the French fleet for the Chesapeake. Washington was greeted in Newport by an artillery salute as he stepped off the ferry on March 6.  French troops lined both sides of the path to Rochambeau’s headquarters. Newport’s political leaders were so excited about Washington’s visit, that the town council even furnished free candles so that all the windows in the city could be illuminated in his honor.6

During the visit, Washington informed Samuel Huntington, the President of the Congress, that “In consequence of previous arrangements between the Count de Rochambeau and myself I found between eleven and twelve hundred of the French Grenadiers and Infantry already embarked and the Fleet nearly ready to sail. They however did not put to sea until [sic] the evening of the 8th.”

He warned that he had just learned that the British sailed from New London, Connecticut, on March 10t, also “bound for Chesapeak [sic],” and that a “meeting of the two fleets seems unavoidable, and perhaps the issue of a contest between them was never more interesting.”

President Washington’s former home at Mount Vernon offers amazing an amazing historical record and is a destination of tourists and history enthusiasts from around the world.  YurView’s Destination Virginia takes an in-depth look at Mount Vernon:

As the nation celebrates Washington’s birthday, it’s important to remember the sheer amount of influence and input he had in laying the foundation of what has become the world’s greatest democracy.