This Day in History: President George Washington is inaugurated

On this day in 1789, George Washington is inaugurated as the first President of the United States.

The inauguration occurred in New York: There was no such thing as Washington, D.C. back then. Thus, on the morning of April 30, citizens in New York awoke to a salute of thirteen guns and the peal of church bells. Some citizens began their day by attending prayer services. In the meantime, Washington was getting ready for his day.

An inaugural procession to Federal Hall began at half past noon. Washington left the presidential residence accompanied by members of Congress, department heads, and other military figures. He was wearing a relatively simple suit, which he’d had made from cloth manufactured in Connecticut. At the time, most textiles were imported, but Washington wanted to wear something American! “I hope it will not be a great while, before it will be unfashionable for a gentleman to appear in any other dress,” Washington wrote the Marquis de Lafayette at about that time. “Indeed,” he concluded, “we have already been to long subject to British prejudices.” As a result, the suit that Washington wore on that important day was a modest brown woolen suit.

Washington traveled to Federal Hall past throngs of people in a coach drawn by four horses. Once he arrived, Vice President John Adams addressed Washington: “Sir, the Senate and the House of Representatives are ready to attend you to take the oath required by the Constitution. It will be administered by the Chancellor of the State of New York.” Washington’s answer was simple: “I am ready to proceed.” He followed Adams to a balcony overlooking Wall and Broad Streets, where he could see the huge crowds of people. They were in the streets, on rooftops, and watching out windows!

Washington simply bowed to them, with his hand on his heart.

A Bible had been obtained for the occasion, and it lay on a table nearby. The Secretary of the Senate picked up the Bible, and Washington placed his hand on it as he took the oath of office. Once Washington had repeated the oath, he bent forward and kissed the Bible. One eyewitness reported that the conclusion of the oath “was communicated to the crowd by proclamation” and the crowd “gave three cheers, and repeated it on the President bowing to them.” More gun salutes were given. More church bells pealed.

Washington returned to the Senate Chamber, where he delivered his inaugural address.

From a technical standpoint, Washington’s inaugural address was (much) less than perfect. His voice trembled, and he seemed nervous. One Senator wrote: “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.” And yet it was an emotional moment. Congressman Fisher Ames later reported that he “sat entranced” during the speech. Washington’s imperfections served only to highlight his sincerity, and his audience loved him all the more for it.

After the inaugural speech, Washington left Federal Hall with members of Congress. They walked to a nearby chapel, where divine service was performed by the Chaplain of Congress. The day concluded with a display of fireworks.

The man who could have been King was now something much more humble: a President.