Today In History: April 30, 1789

On April 30, 1789, George Washington was sworn in as the first President of the United States.

George Washington wrote the following on the eve of his inauguration:

It is said that every man has his portion of ambition. I may have mine, I suppose, as well as the rest, but if I know my own heart, my ambition would not lead me into public life; my only ambition is to do my duty in this world as well as I am capable of performing it, and to merit the good opinion of all good men.

We are so lucky, so very lucky, to have had this man in our “canon”. There’s as always, so much to say. One of the thing that strikes me about him is that he never wanted to seem like he was jostling for power or position. George Washington had many wonderful qualities and abilities – but it was this distaste for public life that I believe made him truly great. He went out of his way to let everyone know how unworthy he felt, how he hoped their trust in him was warranted, that he was eager to finally go home and live the life of a private man… But on this day in history, April 30, there was to be no private man anymore. His people had chosen him, and while Mount Vernon continued to call to him, he knew he must accept.

David McCullough describes, in his book on John Adams, inauguration day:

On the day of his inauguration, Thursday, April 30 1789, Washington rode to Federal Hall in a canary-yellow carriage pulled by six white horses and followed by a long column of New York militia in full dress. The air was sharp, the sun shone brightly, and with all work stopped in the city, the crowds along his route were the largest ever seen. It was as if all New York had turned out and more besides. “Many persons in the crowd,” reported the Gazette of the United States “were heard to say they should now die contented � nothing being wanted to complete their happiness � but the sight of the savior of his country.”

In the Senate Chamber were gathered the members of both houses of Congress, the Vice President, and sundry officials and diplomatic agents, all of whom rose when Washington made his entrance, looking solemn and stately. His hair powdered, he wore a dress sword, white silk stockings, shoes with silver buckles, and a suit of the same brown Hartford broadcloth that Adams, too, was wearing for the occasion. They might have been dressed as twins, except that Washington’s metal buttons had eagles on them.

It was Adams who formally welcomed the General and escorted him to the dais. For an awkward moment Adams appeared to be in some difficulty, as though he had forgotten what he was supposed to say. then, addressing Washington, he declared that the Senate and House of Representatives were ready to attend him for the oath of office as required by the Constitution. Washington said he was ready. Adams bowed and led the way to the outer balcony, in full view of the throng in the streets. People were cheering and waving from below, and from windows and rooftops as far as the eye could see. Washington bowed once, then a second time.

Fourteen years earlier, it had been Adams who called on the Continental Congress to make the tall Virginian commander-in-chief of the army. Now he stood at Washington’s side as Washington, his right hand on the Bible, repeated the oath of office as read by Chancellor Robert R. Livingston of New York, who had also been a member of the Continental Congress.

In a low voice Washington solemnly swore to execute the office of the President of the United States and, to the best of his ability, to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Then, as not specified in the Constitution, he added, “So help me God”, and kissed the Bible, thereby establishing his own first presidential tradition.

“It is done,” Livingston said, and, turning to the crowd, cried out, “Long live George Washington, President of the United States.”

The following is George Washington’s first inaugural address. What I sense in these words is what I sense in so many of the original documents of that time, written by the main players: they were embarking on a grand and hopeful experiment. They were entering uncharted waters. And they all seem determined (each in their different ways, with their different views) to make the most of the opportunity, to seize the day. No decision was unimportant, everything had meaning … and what I also sense in this inaugural address is that Washington knew that he wasn’t only talking to the people present, but he was also talking to us. The future generations. They all knew that they were being watched, carefully, by those who would come after.

The only thing required of a President on his inauguration day, in those early early days, was that he take the oath of Office. Washington, in composing an address, to the people who put their faith in him, set the precedent. Every president since then has followed his example.

George Washington’s first inaugural address:

Fellow-Citizens of the Senate and of the House of Representatives:

Among the vicissitudes incident to life no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order, and received on the 14th day of the present month. On the one hand, I was summoned by my Country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love, from a retreat which I had chosen with the fondest predilection, and, in my flattering hopes, with an immutable decision, as the asylum of my declining years–a retreat which was rendered every day more necessary as well as more dear to me by the addition of habit to inclination, and of frequent interruptions in my health to the gradual waste committed on it by time. On the other hand, the magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most experienced of her citizens a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications, could not but overwhelm with despondence one who (inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpracticed in the duties of civil administration) ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies. In this conflict of emotions all I dare aver is that it has been my faithful study to collect my duty from a just appreciation of every circumstance by which it might be affected. All I dare hope is that if, in executing this task, I have been too much swayed by a grateful remembrance of former instances, or by an affectionate sensibility to this transcendent proof of the confidence of my fellow-citizens, and have thence too little consulted my incapacity as well as disinclination for the weighty and untried cares before me, my error will be palliated by the motives which mislead me, and its consequences be judged by my country with some share of the partiality in which they originated.

Such being the impressions under which I have, in obedience to the public summons, repaired to the present station, it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge. In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow- citizens at large less than either. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency; and in the important revolution just accomplished in the system of their united government the tranquil deliberations and voluntary consent of so many distinct communities from which the event has resulted can not be compared with the means by which most governments have been established without some return of pious gratitude, along with an humble anticipation of the future blessings which the past seem to presage. These reflections, arising out of the present crisis, have forced themselves too strongly on my mind to be suppressed. You will join with me, I trust, in thinking that there are none under the influence of which the proceedings of a new and free government can more auspiciously commence.

By the article establishing the executive department it is made the duty of the President “to recommend to your consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” The circumstances under which I now meet you will acquit me from entering into that subject further than to refer to the great constitutional charter under which you are assembled, and which, in defining your powers, designates the objects to which your attention is to be given. It will be more consistent with those circumstances, and far more congenial with the feelings which actuate me, to substitute, in place of a recommendation of particular measures, the tribute that is due to the talents, the rectitude, and the patriotism which adorn the characters selected to devise and adopt them. In these honorable qualifications I behold the surest pledges that as on one side no local prejudices or attachments, no separate views nor party animosities, will misdirect the comprehensive and equal eye which ought to watch over this great assemblage of communities and interests, so, on another, that the foundation of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality, and the preeminence of free government be exemplified by all the attributes which can win the affections of its citizens and command the respect of the world. I dwell on this prospect with every satisfaction which an ardent love for my country can inspire, since there is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity; since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained; and since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.

Besides the ordinary objects submitted to your care, it will remain with your judgment to decide how far an exercise of the occasional power delegated by the fifth article of the Constitution is rendered expedient at the present juncture by the nature of objections which have been urged against the system, or by the degree of inquietude which has given birth to them. Instead of undertaking particular recommendations on this subject, in which I could be guided by no lights derived from official opportunities, I shall again give way to my entire confidence in your discernment and pursuit of the public good; for I assure myself that whilst you carefully avoid every alteration which might endanger the benefits of an united and effective government, or which ought to await the future lessons of experience, a reverence for the characteristic rights of freemen and a regard for the public harmony will sufficiently influence your deliberations on the question how far the former can be impregnably fortified or the latter be safely and advantageously promoted.

To the foregoing observations I have one to add, which will be most properly addressed to the House of Representatives. It concerns myself, and will therefore be as brief as possible. When I was first honored with a call into the service of my country, then on the eve of an arduous struggle for its liberties, the light in which I contemplated my duty required that I should renounce every pecuniary compensation. From this resolution I have in no instance departed; and being still under the impressions which produced it, I must decline as inapplicable to myself any share in the personal emoluments which may be indispensably included in a permanent provision for the executive department, and must accordingly pray that the pecuniary estimates for the station in which I am placed may during my continuance in it be limited to such actual expenditures as the public good may be thought to require.

Having thus imparted to you my sentiments as they have been awakened by the occasion which brings us together, I shall take my present leave; but not without resorting once more to the benign Parent of the Human Race in humble supplication that, since He has been pleased to favor the American people with opportunities for deliberating in perfect tranquillity, and dispositions for deciding with unparalleled unanimity on a form of government for the security of their union and the advancement of their happiness, so His divine blessing may be equally conspicuous in the enlarged views, the temperate consultations, and the wise measures on which the success of this Government must depend.

William Maclay, a senator from Pennsylvania, kept a daily journal – highly detailed, and rather cynical, about the Senate sessions of the first Congress. He describes the first inauguration in vivid detail:

30th April, Thursday.–This is a great, important day. Goddess of etiquette, assist me while I describe it. The Senate stood adjourned to half after eleven o’clock. About ten dressed in my best clothes; went for Mr. Morris’ lodgings, but met his son, who told me that his father would not be in town until Saturday. Turned into the Hall. The crowd already great. The Senate met. The Vice-President rose in the most solemn manner. This son of Adam seemed impressed with deeper gravity, yet what shall I think of him? He often, in the midst of his most important airs–I believe when tie is at loss for expressions (and this he often is, wrapped up, I suppose, in the contemplation of his own importance)– suffers an unmeaning kind of vacant laugh to escape him. This was the case to-day, and really to me bore the air of ridiculing the farce he was acting. “Gentlemen, I wish for the direction of the Senate. The President will, I suppose, addressthe Congress. How shall I behave? How shall we receive it? Shall it be standing or sitting?”

Here followed a considerable deal of talk from him which I could make nothing of. Mr. Lee began with the House of Commons (as is usual with him), then the House of Lords, then the King, and then back again. The result of his information was, that the Lords sat and the Commons stood on the delivery of the King’s speech. Mr. Izard got up and told how often he had been in the Houses of Parliament. He said a great deal of what he had seen there. [He] made, however, this sagacious discovery, that the Commons stood because they had no. seats to sit on, being arrived at the bar of the House of Lords. It was discovered after some time that the King sat, too, and had his robes and crown on.

Mr. Adams got up again and said he had been very often indeed at the Parliament on those occasions, but there always was such a crowd, and ladies along, that for his part he could not say how it was. Mr. Carrol got up to declare that he thought it of no consequence how it was in Great Britain; they were no rule to us, etc. But all at once the Secretary, who had been out, whispered to the Chair that the Clerk from the Representatives was at the door with a communication. Gentlemen of the Senate, how shall he be received? A silly kind of resolution of the committee on that business had been laid on the table some days ago. The amount of it was that each House should communicate to the other what and how they chose; it concluded, however, something in this way: That everything should be done with all the propriety that was proper. The question was, Shall this be adopted, that we may know how to receive the Clerk? It was objected [that] this will throw no light on the subject; it will leave you where you are. Mr. Lee brought the House of Commons before us again. He reprobated the rule; declared that the Clerk should not come within the bar of file House; that the proper mode was for the Sergeant-at-Arms, with the mace on his shoulder, to meet the Clerk at the door and receive his communication; we are not, however, provided for this ceremonious way of doing business, having neither mace nor sergeant nor Masters in Chancery, who carry down bills from the English Lords.

Mr. Izard got up and labored unintelligibly to show the great distinction between a communication and a delivery of a thing, but he was not minded. Mr. Elsworth showed plainly enough that if the Clerk was not permitted to deliver the communication, the Speaker might as well send it inclosed. Repeated accounts came [that] the Speaker and Representatives were at the door. Confusion ensued; the members left their seats. Mr. Read rose and called the attention of the Senate to the neglect that had been shown Mr. Thompson, late Secretary. Mr. Lee rose to answer him, but I could not hear one word he said. The Speaker was introduced, followed by the Representatives. Here we sat an hour and ten minutes before the President arrived–this delay was owing to Lee, Izard, and Dalton, who had stayed with us while the Speaker came in, instead of going to attend the President. The President advanced between the Senate and Representatives, bowing to each. He was placed in the chair by the Vice-President; the Senate with their president on the right, the Speaker and the Representatives on his left. The Vice-President rose and addressed a short sentence to him. The import of it was that he should now take the oath of office as President. He seemed to have forgot half what he was to say, for he made a dead pause and stood for some time, to appearance, in a vacant mood. He finished with a formal bow, and the President was conducted out of the middle window into the gallery, and the oath was administered by the Chancellor. Notice that the business done was communicated to the crowd by proclamation, etc., who gave three cheers, and repeated it on the President’s bowing to them.

As the company returned into the Senate chamber, the President took the chair and the Senators and Representatives their seats. He rose, and all arose also and addressed them. This great man was agitated and embarrassed more than ever he was by the leveled cannon or pointed musket. He trembled, and several times could scarce make out to read, though it must be supposed he had often read it before. He put part of the fingers of his left hand into the side of what I think the tailors call the fall of the breeches, changing the paper into his left hand. After some time he then did the same with some of the fingers of his right hand. When he came to the words all the world, he made a flourish with his right hand, which left rather an ungainly impression. I sincerely, for my part, wished all set ceremony in the hands of the dancing-masters, and that this first of men had read off his address in the plainest manner, without ever taking his eyes from the paper, for I felt hurt that he was not first in everything. He was dressed in deep brown, with metal buttons, with an eagle on them, white stockings, a bag, and sword.

From the hall there was a grand procession to Saint Paul’s Church, where prayers were said by the Bishop. The procession was well conducted and without accident, as far as I have heard. The militia were all under arms, lined the street near the church, made a good figure, and behaved well.

The Senate returned to their chamber after service, formed, and took up the address. Our Vice-President called it his most gracious speech. I can not approve of this. A committee was appointed on it–Johnson, Carrol, Patterson. Adjourned. In the evening there were grand fireworks. The Spanish Ambassador’s house was adorned with transparent paintings; the French Minister’s house was illuminated, and had some transparent pieces; the Hall was grandly illuminated, and after all this the people went to bed.

I have such a deep fondness for John Adams, with all his airs and self-importance and vanity. I just love the guy, what can I say. He’s so feckin’ human.

The description of Washington’s awkwardness makes me want to cry:

He rose, and all arose also and addressed them. This great man was agitated and embarrassed more than ever he was by the leveled cannon or pointed musket. He trembled, and several times could scarce make out to read, though it must be supposed he had often read it before. He put part of the fingers of his left hand into the side of what I think the tailors call the fall of the breeches, changing the paper into his left hand. After some time he then did the same with some of the fingers of his right hand. When he came to the words all the world, he made a flourish with his right hand, which left rather an ungainly impression. I sincerely, for my part, wished all set ceremony in the hands of the dancing-masters, and that this first of men had read off his address in the plainest manner, without ever taking his eyes from the paper, for I felt hurt that he was not first in everything. He was dressed in deep brown, with metal buttons, with an eagle on them, white stockings, a bag, and sword.

God. Good God. But what really moves me is that after the address, they all walked in procession, led by George Washington, to St. Paul’s Church, for a service.

St. Paul’s Church. (Read that article … it’s a well-known story, of course, but it always bears repeating.) St. Paul’s has always had meaning for us here in New York, because of its long history, but now … it has more meaning than ever. I can’t even think about St. Paul’s without feeling tears come to my eyes. So to think … that that special church, that church that became symbolic (not just to us here, but to people all over the country) of hope, or survival, of healing … would be the place where George Washington prayed for guidance after being sworn in as the first President… I mean, honestly. I don’t even know what else to say about it.

April 30, 1789 … the day this new nation embarked on its unknown and exciting course, with George Washington at the helm.

Here is an image of the first page of this inaugural address, in Washington’s own hand.

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One Response to Today In History: April 30, 1789

  1. Steve on the mountain says:

    Thank you, William Maclay. Vivid detail indeed. The awkwardness of dealing with something new and BIG springs to life.
    Steve on the mountain