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Events and Exhibits

“This curious Art”: Shorthand record of George Washington’s First Inaugural Address, April 30, 1789

Extract from President Washington’s speech to the First Congress, April 30, 1789, p1, MS 1236, MdHS (reference photo)

Extract from President Washington’s speech to the First Congress, April 30, 1789, p1, MS 1236, MdHS (reference photo) (CLICK TO ENLARGE)

“This curious Art will teach you to take down, the great Affairs of Government and Crown.”(1)

James Weston, 1743

Special Collections staff pulled this document while prepping for an upcoming exhibit and all agreed we had never seen eighteenth-century shorthand — nor did we know this writing form existed. Moving two steps ahead of “that’s pretty cool, but what is it,” we learned that this method of recording symbols and forms dates to the ancient Greeks and Romans and that cultures across the globe developed abbreviated writing styles.

Stenography Compleated; Or, The Art of Short-hand Brought to Perfection, James Weston (not from MdHS collection)

Stenography Compleated; Or, The Art of Short-hand Brought to Perfection, James Weston
(not from MdHS collection)

The document, “Extract from President Washington’s speech to the First Congress, April 30, 1789,” belonged to Captain Samuel Church (1765-1822), Revolutionary patriot and officer, and is actually the president’s first inaugural address.(2) Did Church actually write these shorthand notes, or did he get them from someone else? This we do not know, but determined to learn more, we looked for the stenography method shown in this document and identified James Weston (1688–1751) who developed the method that is chronologically closest to the date of the document. Weston published Stenography Compleated; Or, The Art of Short-hand Brought to Perfection in 1743 and added three additional volumes. Potential practitioners would be able to join words:

“in every sentence, at least two, three, four, five, six, seven, or more words together in one without taking off ye pen, in ye twinkling of an eye, and that by the signs of the English moods, tenses, persons, particles, &c., never before invented.” Furthermore, “By this new method any, who can but tolerably write their names in roundhand, may with ease (by this book alone without any teacher) take down from ye speaker’s mouth, any sermon, speech, trial, play, &c, word by word, though they know nothing of Latin. And may likewise read one another’s writing distinctly be it ever so long after it is written. To perform these by any other short-hand method extant is utterly impossible as is evident from ye books themselves.”

The full text of the first inaugural address is available at Mount Vernon, www.mountvernon.org, but how accurate is this transcription? We hereby invite our readers to “crack the code.” The first three to do so will each receive a one year membership to the Maryland Historical Society!

Extract from President Washington’s speech to the First Congress, April 30, 1789, p2-3, MS 1236, MdHS (reference photo)

Extract from President Washington’s speech to the First Congress, April 30, 1789, p2-3, MS 1236, MdHS (reference photo) (CLICK TO ENLARGE)

(1) James Weston, Stenography Compleated; Or, The Art of Short-hand Brought to Perfection: Being the Most Easy, Exact, Speedy, and Legible Method . . . (London: by the author, 1743).

(2) Captain Samuel Church Papers, MS1236, Maryland Historical Society.

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