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On Becoming President: A letter to Henry Knox
Digital History ID 184

Author:   George Washington


The United States was the first nation in history to institute a periodic national census. Since 1790, the country has tried to count each person every ten years. Taking the nation's first census was an extraordinarily difficult task. The nation's sheer physical size--867,980 square miles--made it difficult to conduct an accurate count. The first census counted 3,929,214 people, about half in the northern states, half in the South. The population was only about a quarter of England's and a sixth of France's size. But it was growing extraordinarily rapidly. Just an estimated 1.17 million in 1750, it would pass 5 million by 1800.

The 1790 census revealed a nation that was still overwhelmingly rural in character. Only two cities (Philadelphia and New York) had more than 25,000 residents each and only 200,000 people lived in the 24 towns and cities with at least 2500 inhabitants. But the urban population, while small, was growing extremely rapidly, especially in the West, where towns like Cincinnati and Louisville were mushrooming in size.

In 1790, most Americans still lived on the Atlantic coast. The geographic center of population was on Maryland's eastern shore, just a few miles from the ocean. Nevertheless, the West was the most rapidly growing part of the nation. During the 1790s, the population of Kentucky and Tennessee increased nearly 300 percent, and by 1800, Kentucky had more people than five of the original 13 states.

The 1790s was in many respects the nation's formative decade--economically as well as politically. In 1789, when the new government was launched, there were fewer than a hundred newspapers in the country, just three banks, and three insurance companies. Over the next ten years, American society made tremendous economic advances. Ten times as many corporations, banks, and transportation companies were chartered in the 1790s than in the 1780s. The value of exports climbed from $29 million to $107 million; cotton production rose from 3000 bales to 73,000. The number of patents issued increased from just three in 1790 to 44 in 1800. The first mechanized factories were built in the country during the 1790s, producing everything from firearms and nails to umbrellas and hats.

Washington, who longed to return to agricultural pursuits, sent this note to his friend General Henry Knox just as he was about to assume office as President.


My movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied with feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution, so unwilling am I, in the evening of a life nearly consumed in pubic cares to quit a peaceful abode for an ocean of difficulties.

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

Additional information: George Washington to Henry Knox

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