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This Month in North Carolina History

June 1791 - George Washington Visits Salem, NC

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In the spring of 1791 President George Washington began a tour of the southern states, not only to learn first hand about the condition of the country but also to give the citizens of the young United States a chance to meet their first President. The tremendous enthusiasm with which Washington was greeted as he journeyed to New York after his election must surely have revealed to him the great admiration in which he was held. A proponent of the new constitution and determined that the government created under that constitution be firmly rooted in the support of the people, Washington saw the advantage of linking his popularity as closely as possible to the new government. As president he tried to remain a national symbol, staying as much as possible above political strife. His tour of the southern states, as well as visits to other parts of the country, also helped to strengthen the growing sense of American union.

Washington's travels during his presidency were also a testimony to his remarkable physical stamina. In his late fifties at the time of the southern tour, with years of military campaigning behind him, the rigors of travel in America at the end of the eighteenth century had little impact on him. His day often began well before dawn, and Washington would cover as much as fifteen miles before breakfast. In bad weather he travelled in a carriage, but if the day was fine he was in the saddle. Washington must also have felt the stress of being the most popular figure in the country. Wherever he went Washington was lionized. People poured out to see him in cities, towns, and villages all along his itinerary. Meeting and greeting, speeches, dinners and entertainments were all part of the routine. With as many as a dozen toasts at a dinner, Washington either had an amazing head for alcohol or took very small sips.

Washington first traveled south through the eastern parts of the Carolinas and Georgia and then returned to Virginia by a route that took him farther to the west. He entered North Carolina on the return trip late in May near Charlotte. Passing on through the state, Washington intended to spend the night in Salem, and word came to the town to expect the President in the afternoon of May 31st.

It is easy to imagine that Washington's visit to Salem, while it was certainly the occasion of much enthusiasm was also the cause of a bit of anxiety. Throughout the south Washington's tour was a celebration of the Revolution. He was hailed as the Father of his Country. Speeches and toasts memorialized his service in the war against Britain. Many of those who greeted and entertained him had been his fellow soldiers in that war. Salem was something of an exception.

The Moravians of Salem and the surrounding countryside - the old tract of Wachovia - had, at the time of the American Revolution, a tradition of pacifism going back more than three hundred years. When hostilities began between the British government and its colonial opponents the Moravians asked to be left alone. The official diary of the Moravian settlements records simply, "It does not accord with our character as Brethren to mix in such political affairs, we are children of peace." To patriots or loyalists, who were sacrificing much for their cause, this was hard to accept. The Moravian settlements were persecuted by both sides as they tried to maintain their religious commitment.

Whatever concern there may have been, the meeting between the President and the Moravians went smoothly and pleasantly. We are fortunate to have several accounts of Washington's visit to Salem, the most important ones being the diary of the President himself and the official diary of the Moravian community. Washington was impressed with the neat orderly appearance of the town as well as with the demeanor of its inhabitants. He considered it a well governed, hard-working community. The people of Salem were impressed with Washington's simple, friendly manner, particularly with children. The Moravians loved music, and Washington was so pleased with the band which played for him on his arrival that he asked if he could have music to accompany his dinner. The next day, June 1, Washington toured Salem, visiting its workshops and Choir houses. He was particularly taken with the waterworks. In the afternoon the leaders of the community made a formal address to the President to which he responded. Governor Alexander Martin arrived late in the afternoon, and he and the President attended a "singstunde" with singing and instrumental music. At four o'clock on the morning of June 2nd, the presidential party left Salem and on June 9 crossed back into Virginia.

Harry McKown
June 2010


Sources:

Alden, John R. George Washington: a biography. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, c. 1984.

Henderson Archibald. Washington's southern tour, 1791. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1923.

Fries, Adelaide, ed. Records of the Moravians in North Carolina, Vol. V. Raleigh, NC: The North Carolina Historical Commission, 1941.

Image Source:

"Old Tavern Where George Washington Was Entertained In 1791, Winston-Salem, N.C." in Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.