Editor’s Note, January 8, 2021: In advance of president-elect Joseph R. Biden’s inauguration, this post has been updated to clarify that the National Archives exhibition occurred in the past. The Archives are currently closed to the public due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“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,” George Washington began in an address to Congress on the moment of his first day (April 30, 1789) as President. The first inauguration of an American president was a momentous occasion, and Washington felt humbled by the office itself and the ceremonies that would surround it after he left. Delivering a speech on the occasion of the inauguration would be a tradition continued on to the present day.
To commemorate the historic event in time for the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president, the National Archives displayed the first and last pages of Washington’s handwritten inaugural address and the Bible upon which he swore the oath of office. The documents are a testament to the gravity of the office, and the pressure Washington felt in becoming the first president to serve the nascent United States. This was the first time the two documents had been displayed together since 2005 for President George W. Bush’s second inauguration.
“When Washington was unanimously elected, he was looking forward to returning to private life,” says Corinne Porter, curator at the National Archives. “It was the power of the country’s call to serve that brought him forward.”
As early as Washington’s first day in office he began setting traditions, Porter says. Neither swearing the oath on a Bible nor giving an inaugural address were mandated by Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution (which describes the duties and powers of executive office). Those ceremonial actions were invented by Washington himself, and have largely been followed since 1789—with some deviations.
The president took his oath on a second floor balcony, in front of a cheering crowd. As Washington was a Freemason, it seems fitting that the Bible in use for the event was on loan from St. Johns Masonic Lodge No. 1, Ancient York Masons. He was sworn into office with his hand on the open pages displaying Chapters 49-50 of Genesis, a section chosen at random.
While most presidents following Washington have continued the tradition of being sworn in on a Bible, several have deviated from that path. John Quincy Adams used a U.S. law book, and Theodore Roosevelt used nothing at all for his first inauguration.
Following the oath, Washington addressed Congress in New York City’s Federal Hall, the nation’s temporary capital. Based on letters in the collection of Washington’s papers, it seems that he may have initially considered delivering a 73-page inaugural speech written by one of his former aides-de-camp, David Humphreys. Only fragments remain of that text, and Washington went on to give a much shorter speech to Congress.