George Washington: The Reluctant President- page 3 | History | Smithsonian
On February 4, 1789, the 69 members of the Electoral College made George Washington the only chief executive to be unanimously elected. (Illustration by Joe Ciardiello)

George Washington: The Reluctant President

It seemed as if everyone rejoiced at the election of our first chief executive except the man himself

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(Continued from page 2)

Washington knew that everything he did at the swearing-in would establish a tone for the future. “As the first of everything in our situation will serve to establish a precedent,” he reminded Madison, “it is devoutly wished on my part that these precedents may be fixed on true principles.” He would shape indelibly the institution of the presidency. Although he had earned his reputation in battle, he made a critical decision not to wear a uniform at the inauguration or beyond, banishing fears of a military coup. Instead, he would stand there aglitter with patriotic symbols. To spur American manufactures, he would wear a double-breasted brown suit, made from broadcloth woven at the Woolen Manufactory of Hartford, Connecticut. The suit had gilt buttons with an eagle insignia on them; to round out his outfit, he would wear white hosiery, silver shoe buckles and yellow gloves. Washington already sensed that Americans would emulate their presidents. “I hope it will not be a great while before it will be unfashionable for a gentleman to appear in any other dress,” he told his friend the Marquis de Lafayette, referring to his American attire. “Indeed, we have already been too long subject to British prejudices.” To burnish his image further on Inauguration Day, Washington would powder his hair and wear a dress sword on his hip, sheathed in a steel scabbard.

The inauguration took place at the building at Wall and Nassau streets that had long served as New York’s City Hall. It came richly laden with historical associations, having hosted John Peter Zenger’s trial in 1735, the Stamp Act Congress of 1765 and the Confederation Congress from 1785 to 1788. Starting in September 1788, the French engineer Pierre-Charles L’Enfant had remodeled it into Federal Hall, a suitable home for Congress. L’Enfant introduced a covered arcade at street level and a balcony surmounted by a triangular pediment on the second story. As the people’s chamber, the House of Representatives was accessible to the public, situated in a high-ceilinged octagonal room on the ground floor, while the Senate met in a second-floor room on the Wall Street side, buffering it from popular pressure. From this room Washington would emerge onto the balcony to take the oath of office. In many ways, the first inauguration was a hasty, slapdash affair. As with all theatrical spectacles, rushed preparations and frantic work on the new building continued until a few days before the event. Nervous anticipation spread through the city as to whether the 200 workmen would complete the project on time. Only a few days before the inauguration, an eagle was hoisted onto the pediment, completing the building. The final effect was stately: a white building with a blue and white cupola topped by a weather vane.

A little after noon on April 30, 1789, following a morning filled with clanging church bells and prayers, a contingent of troops on horseback, accompanied by carriages loaded with legislators, stopped at Washington’s Cherry Street residence. Escorted by David Humphreys and aide Tobias Lear, the president-elect stepped into his appointed carriage, which was trailed by foreign dignitaries and throngs of joyous citizens. The procession wound slowly through the narrow Manhattan streets, emerging 200 yards from Federal Hall. After alighting from his carriage, Washington strode through a double line of soldiers to the building and mounted to the Senate chamber, where members of Congress awaited him expectantly. As he entered, Washington bowed to both houses of the legislature—his invariable mark of respect—then occupied an imposing chair up front. A profound hush settled on the room. Vice President John Adams rose for an official greeting, then informed Washington that the epochal moment had arrived. “Sir, the Senate and House of Representatives are ready to attend you to take the oath required by the Constitution.” “I am ready to proceed,” Washington replied.

As he stepped through the door onto the balcony, a spontaneous roar surged from the multitude tightly squeezed into Wall and Broad streets and covering every roof in sight. This open-air ceremony would confirm the sovereignty of the citizens gathered below. Washington’s demeanor was stately, modest and deeply affecting: he clapped one hand to his heart and bowed several times to the crowd. Surveying the serried ranks of people, one observer said they were jammed so closely together “that it seemed one might literally walk on the heads of the people.” Thanks to his simple dignity, integrity and unrivaled sacrifices for his country, Washington’s conquest of the people was complete. A member of the crowd, the Count de Moustier, the French minister, noted the solemn trust between Washington and the citizens who stood packed below him with uplifted faces. As he reported to his government, never had a “sovereign reigned more completely in the hearts of his subjects than did Washington in those of his fellow citizens...he has the soul, look and figure of a hero united in him.” One young woman in the crowd echoed this when she remarked, “I never saw a human being that looked so great and noble as he does.” Only Congressman Fisher Ames of Massachusetts noted that “time has made havoc” upon Washington’s face, which already looked haggard and careworn.

The sole constitutional requirement for the swearing-in was that the president take the oath of office. That morning, a Congressional committee decided to add solemnity by having Washington place his hand on a Bible during the oath, leading to a frantic, last-minute scramble to locate one. A Masonic lodge came to the rescue by providing a thick Bible, bound in deep brown leather and set on a crimson velvet cushion. By the time Washington appeared on the portico, the Bible rested on a table draped in red.

The crowd grew silent as New York Chancellor Robert R. Livingston administered the oath to Washington, who was visibly moved. As the president finished the oath, he bent forward, seized the Bible and brought it to his lips. Washington felt this moment from the bottom of his soul: one observer noted the “devout fervency” with which he “repeated the oath and the reverential manner in which he bowed down and kissed” the Bible. Legend has it that he added, “So help me God,” though this line was first reported 65 years later. Whether or not Washington actually said it, very few people would have heard him anyway, since his voice was soft and breathy. For the crowd below, the oath of office was enacted as a kind of dumb show. Livingston had to lift his voice and inform the crowd, “It is done.” He then intoned: “Long live George Washington, president of the United States.” The spectators responded with huzzahs and chants of “God bless our Washington! Long live our beloved president!” They celebrated in the only way they knew, as if greeting a new monarch with the customary cry of “Long live the king!”

When the balcony ceremony was concluded, Washington returned to the Senate chamber to deliver his inaugural address. In an important piece of symbolism, Congress rose as he entered, then sat down after Washington bowed in response. In England, the House of Commons stood during the king’s speeches; the seated Congress immediately established a sturdy equality between the legislative and executive branches.

As Washington began his speech, he seemed flustered and thrust his left hand in his pocket while turning the pages with a trembling right hand. His weak voice was barely audible in the room. Fisher Ames evoked him thus: “His aspect grave, almost to sadness; his modesty, actually shaking; his voice deep, a little tremulous, and so low as to call for close attention.” Those present attributed Washington’s low voice and fumbling hands to anxiety. “This great man was agitated and embarrassed more than ever he was by the leveled cannon or pointed musket,” said Pennsylvania Senator William Maclay in sniggering tones. “He trembled and several times could scarce make out to read, though it must be supposed he had often read it before.” Washington’s agitation might have arisen from an undiagnosed neurological disorder or might simply have been a bad case of nerves. The new president had long been famous for his physical grace, but the sole gesture he used for emphasis in his speech seemed clumsy—“a flourish with his right hand,” said Maclay, “which left rather an ungainly impression.” For the next few years, Maclay would be a close, unsparing observer of the new president’s nervous quirks and tics.

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