David McCullough on the inauguration of John Adams (March 4, 1797):
The room was filled to overflowing, every seat taken by members of the House and Senate, justices of the Supreme Court, heads of departments, the diplomatic corps, and many ladies said to have added a welcome note of “brilliancy” to the otherwise solemn occasion.
There was a burst of applause when George Washington entered and walked to the dais. More applause followed on the appearance of Thomas Jefferson, who had been inaugurated Vice President upstairs in the Senate earlier that morning, and “like marks of approbation” greeted John Adams, who on his entrance in the wake of the two tall Virginians seemed shorter and more bulky even than usual.
It was a scene few who were present would ever forget.
Here were the three who, more than any others, had made the Revolution, and as many in the audience supposed, it was to be the last time they would ever appear on the same platform. Adams felt as he had when he first appeared before George III as if he were on stage playing a part. It was, he later told Abigail, “the most affecting and overpowering scene I ever acted in.”
Jefferson’s height was accentuated by a long blue frock coat. Washington was in a dress suit of black velvet. Adams, the plainest of the three, wore a suit of grey broadcloth intentionally devoid of fancy buttons and knee buckles .
Though in print [Adams’ inaugural speech] would seem a bit stilted, it was delivered with great force and effect. Stirred by emotion, and in a strong voice, Adams recalled the old ardor of the American Revolution and spoke of the “present happy Constitution” as the creation of “good heads prompted by good hearts.” In answer to concerns about his political creed, he expressed total attachment to and veneration for the present system of a free republican government. “What other form of government, indeed, can so well deserve our esteem and love?” He spoke of his respect for the rights of all states, and of his belief in expanded education for all the people, both to enlarge the happiness of life and as essential to the preservation of freedom. The great threats to the nation, Adams warned, were sophistry, the spirit of party, and “the pestilence of foreign influence.”
He paid gracious tribute to Washington’s leadership . Then, having issued a solemn invocation of the Supreme Being, he stepped down from the platform to a table at the front of the chamber, where Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth administered the oath of office, Adams energetically repeating the words.
And so Adams became President of the nation that now with the additions of Vermont, Kentucky and Tennessee numbered 16 states .
Many in the chamber were weeping, moved by his words, but still more, it seems, by the prospect of Washington’s exit from the national stage. “A solemn scene it was indeed,” Adams wrote, noting that Washington’s face remained as serene and unclouded as the day. “Methought I heard him think, ‘Ay! I am fairly out and you are fairly in! See which of us will be the happiest!'”