In lower Manhattan, tourists walk past a building at the intersection of Broad and Wall Streets. The building looks like a misplaced Greek temple; standing before it is a large statue of George Washington in civilian clothes. Almost nobody there would know why the statue is there or identify the building behind it. The statue marks the site where George Washington took the constitutional oath of office to become president of the United States on April 30, 1789 – the first president taking the presidential oath for the first time.
The inauguration was a mix of patriotic ritual and human uncertainty – almost comical, yet deeply moving. Washington was 55, aware that he had lived longer than any other man in his family, nearly all of whom had died before reaching 40. Politics haunted him, too. He was about to take office as first President of the United States, under an untried Constitution adopted after a titanic political struggle. He had presided over that Constitution’s creation by the Federal Convention of 1787, and he was aware that his reputation was bound up with its fate. Even after eleven of the thirteen states had ratified it, he knew that controversy still raged over the Constitution and over its creation of a new chief executive office, the Presidency – to which nearly everyone in the nation insisted that he should be elected.
Washington had retired from public life at the end of 1783, in the same city where in 1789 he nervously waited to become President. Then, after having bade farewell to the Confederation Congress in Annapolis, he said goodbye to his officers at a private reception in New York City’s Fraunces Tavern. He had hoped to spend his retirement overseeing his plantation and enjoying his family’s company – but politics would not let him rest. The travails of the United States under the Articles of Confederation had brought forth a national constitutional reform movement, one that pelted him with letters of alarm, encouragement, political prescriptions, and demands that he join them in saving the nation from itself. Almost against his will, he admitted his desire for reform, his horror at the state of the Union after the war’s end, and the need to revise, perhaps to replace, the Articles of Confederation. “Either we are a united people or we are not,” he grumbled. “If not, let us have done playing the farce.” Writing to unburden himself to trusted friends, he welcomed the news of a Federal Convention taking up the issue of constitutional reform – a body that, he hoped, would “plumb the defects of the [Confederation] to the bottom and propose radical cures, whether they are agreed to or not.” Shaken when Virginia named him as one of its delegates to that Convention, he gave in to the pleadings of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, who would be in Philadelphia with him.
The Convention was a learning experience for Washington. It was a seminar on constitutional government, with Washington as the student and his fellow delegates as the faculty. Washington knew that, as they were creating the Constitution, they were using him as a model for the chief executive office. He signed the Constitution and took no active role in the campaign for its ratification – although he tried to get a Virginia printer to republish the Federalist essays being written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay in defense of the Constitution. Once the Constitution was ratified, and once the states set in motion the process for choosing the President and the members of the First Federal Congress, he dreaded the idea that the Electoral College would make him President. When he discovered that he had been elected unanimously, he was so thrown by the prospect of returning to public life that it took the combined entreaties of Madison and Hamilton to persuade him to accept the office. Once he received official notification of the electoral results and of the date for his inauguration, he borrowed $500 from a neighbor to finance his journey and made his way up the East Coast to New York City.
Washington did not care for the temporary capital; it was the scene of one of his worst defeats in 1776, and as a confirmed farmer and planter, he had mixed feelings about cities. Nonetheless, because he insisted on doing his duty no matter the cost, he gamely went through the meetings and parties between his arrival in New York on April 23 and his inauguration on April 30. Privately admitting that he felt “like a culprit going to the place of his execution,” he fretted that from the day he was sworn in “I date the fall of my reputation.”
On April 30, 1789, he was escorted to a church service at St. Paul’s Chapel at Broadway and Fulton Street and then down Broadway to Federal Hall, newly remodeled for use as the nation’s first capitol. He wore a brown worsted suit of local manufacture, making three statements with his choice of attire – first, he was taking office as George Washington, Esq., not as General Washington; second, he was respecting a principle he long valued, of civilian supremacy over the military; and, third, “buy American.” Standing on the building’s balcony, his hand on a Bible borrowed from a neighboring Masonic lodge, he took the oath from New York’s Chancellor (the judge of the state’s highest equity court), Robert R. Livingston, a veteran diplomat and ardent supporter of the Constitution.
When he delivered his inaugural address to a joint session of Congress, he was faltering and hesitant, reading his text from a manuscript gripped in his hand. Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania complained in his diary that Washington trembled more than if he were facing musket fire, confessing his disappointment that “this first of men” was not “first in everything.” Fortunately, Washington missed most of the stumbling and bumbling afflicting Congress in the hours before he joined them for the inauguration. As the Senate waited in its chamber on the second floor of Federal Hall before the House of Representatives came upstairs to join them for the ceremony, the Senators asked one another questions. Who would sit where? Who would be standing? Who would be sitting? Poor Vice President John Adams fretted that he did not know what he would do when Washington entered the chamber, and the Senators didn’t, either. Nonetheless, the inauguration took place without major incidents or controversy, and George Washington then assumed the burden of the presidency.
The first inauguration was a hesitant beginning to the American constitutional experiment. Since 1789, we have had inaugurations swell into vast commemorations, filled with pomp and circumstance, parades and marching bands and floats and inaugural balls. We should remember that the first presidential election and inauguration were uncertain and fumbling affairs – unlikely beginnings for history’s longest-running experiment with a written national constitution.