Washington’s Inauguration Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As the first president of the United States, George Washington set lasting precedents for future leaders, helping to define both the qualities befitting a president and the appropriate conduct of presidents while in office.

Summary of Event

Early on the afternoon of April 30, 1789, George Washington took the oath of office of Presidency, U.S.[Presidency, US] president of the United States as prescribed by the new Constitution. Standing on a small portico at Federal Hall, New York City, Washington repeated the solemn words administered by Robert Livingston, chancellor of the state of New York, and then added his own suffix: “So help me God.” Bending forward, the first president of the United States kissed the Bible held for him by Samuel Otis, secretary of the Senate. Livingston then declared, “It is done!” and, turning to the multitudes on the rooftops, in the street, and at the windows of Broad and Wall Streets below, he shouted: “Long live George Washington, president of the United States.” The crowd roared back, “God bless our president,” and the flag was jubilantly raised to the cupola of the great hall while gun salutes and church bells resounded. [kw]Washington’s Inauguration (Apr. 30, 1789) [kw]Inauguration, Washington’s (Apr. 30, 1789) Presidency, U.S. [g]United States;Apr. 30, 1789: Washington’s Inauguration[2800] [c]Government and politics;Apr. 30, 1789: Washington’s Inauguration[2800] Washington, George [p]Washington, George;inauguration Adams, John (1735-1826) Livingston, Robert R. Otis, Samuel Allyne

The fifty-seven-year-old Washington took office in a newly formed nation of four million people, citizens and noncitizens, living in thirteen states. He came to the presidency without previous experience in any elected executive office, despite a lifetime of dedicated public service. Influenced as were many men of his generation by the principles of the Enlightenment, Washington believed in the republican ideal, with its emphasis on self-sacrifice and the public good.

Washington’s long career had begun in 1758 with his election to the Virginia Assembly. He served as a colonel in the Virginia militia under the British in the French and Indian War. As commander in chief of the Continental army, Army, U.S.[Army, US] he wielded more authority—and perhaps commanded more respect—than had the Continental Congress that appointed him. In 1787, he was unanimously chosen as president of the Constitutional Convention, which ultimately would produce the new Constitution. In taking office as president of the nation under that new constitution, Washington provided the fledgling nation with a model of simple dignity—the soul and air of a hero-leader. Earnest and sincere, he evoked memories of the victorious American Revolution and offered unity and confidence to the citizens in their new government. As such, he had been unanimously chosen by the electoral college under the new Constitution. Constitutional Convention (1787) Constitutional Convention, which ultimately would produce the new Constitution, U.S. Constitution. In taking office as president of the nation under that new Constitution, Washington provided the fledgling nation with a model of simple dignity—the soul and air of a hero-leader. Earnest and sincere, he evoked memories of the victorious American Revolution American Revolution (1775-1783);George Washington[Washington] and offered unity and confidence to the citizens in their new government. As such, he had been unanimously chosen by the electoral college under the new Constitution.

The anxieties of war, his labor for the Constitution, his desire for retirement from public life, and his love for his family and his home at Mount Vernon made Washington’s decision to accept the presidency a difficult one. He wrote: “My movements to the chair of government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution, so unwilling am I, in the evening of a life nearly consumed in public cares, to quit a peaceful abode for an ocean of difficulties, without that competency of political skills, abilities and inclination which is necessary to manage the helm.”

Thus, it was with mixed emotions that Washington set out for New York on April 16, 1789. Acclamations met him on each stage of his journey. In Alexandria, Georgetown, Baltimore, Wilmington, and Philadelphia, grateful citizens welcomed their acknowledged leader, who traveled by carriage, horseback, and flotilla. One week before his inauguration, Washington arrived at the end of Wall Street by barge from Elizabeth Town Point, New Jersey, to be met by thousands of cheering New Yorkers, a great display of boats and festooned ships, and the loud roar of cannon.

Crowds gather outside Federal Hall in New York City to witness the inauguration of the first president of the United States, George Washington.

(C.A. Nichols & Company)

Washington represented for the people who cheered him the last great hope for unity. Americans had been made wary by the revolution, the inadequacy of the Articles of Confederation (1781) Articles of Confederation, and the Federalist and Antifederalist factions that had developed as the Constitution underwent the difficult process of ratification. The young nation looked to the new Constitution for the leadership that would set its government in motion and make it endure. Washington took stewardship of the Constitution, which provided for a strong central government while strictly defining the powers of that government. His calm, purposeful presence during the contentious debates, and his refusal to side with any party, would sound the keynote to his new administration. Washington’s inauguration marked the delivery of the Constitution and the start of a new era.

That Washington keenly felt the need for unity was apparent in his inaugural address, although the event was marred somewhat by factional debate over what title Washington should take as president. Federalist Party Federalists were concerned their new president would not receive sufficient respect without a dignified title, especially from emissaries from foreign nations. They proposed “His Most Benign Excellency” and “His Highness, the President of the United States and Protector of their Liberties” as likely titles. These received loud and derisive complaints from the Antifederalists Antifederalist members of Congress, already worried that a too-powerful executive would bring a return of the tyranny many recalled under British rule. Eventually, the designation of “President of the United States” was determined, and Washington was pleased to be addressed simply as Mr. President.

After taking the oath of office, the new president entered the Senate Chamber, where both houses of Congress and various dignitaries took seats. On the canopied dias with the president were Vice President John Adams, Chancellor Livingston, and New York governor Clinton, George George Clinton. President Washington modestly delivered the well-fashioned phrases of his first presidential address. In his opening remarks, he spoke of his inner conflict, his consciousness of his “inferior endowments,” and his lack of experience in civil administration. He paid homage to God, whose provident hand had guided the people through their struggles and deliberation.

Recognizing his duty under the Constitution to make recommendations to the Congress, Washington expressed his trust that the legislators would rise above the local pledges or attachments and petty animosities. In the only specific suggestion of the address, Washington urged Congress to quell “inquietude” by deciding to what extent it would advocate constitutional amendments. He expressed confidence in Congress’s ultimate wisdom in pursuit of the public good. Washington concluded on the theme of unity, trusting that God had

been pleased to favor the American people, with opportunities for deliberating in perfect tranquillity, and dispositions for deciding with unparalleled unanimity on a form of government for the security of their Union and the advancement of their happiness; so his divine blessing may be equally conspicuous in the enlarged views, the temperate consultations and the wise measures on which the success of the Government must depend.

From Federal Hall, the president walked triumphantly with congressmen and guests through streets lined with militia to services at St. Paul’s Chapel.

Significance

Washington believed that his inauguration as president represented the consummation of the revolution. The political experiment should have a fair trial, and the new president vowed to do his best to support it. Deeply conscious that he was setting the pattern that future presidents would follow, Washington brought the same dignity and modesty he had demonstrated throughout his career to the office of the presidency. Because he was the first president, the specific virtues he displayed in office became the virtues that Americans would expect of all their presidents for generations. Moreover, as the leader of the new nation, Washington projected an international image that became the image of American leadership in the eyes of the world at large.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alden, John R. George Washington: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984. A comprehensive, interesting biography that bypasses the common mistake of lionizing the subject.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burns, James MacGregor, and Susan Dunn. George Washington. New York: Times Books, 2004. Concise biography, one in a series of books on the American presidents. Much of the book describes how Washington carefully created a public image emphasizing self-sacrifice and dignity. The authors also praise Washington’s presidency, lauding his ability to establish a strong executive branch and to develop the most effective style of collective leadership of any American president.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ellis, Joseph J. His Excellency: George Washington. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. Best-selling and highly acclaimed biography, based in large part on Washington’s newly cataloged letters and papers at the University of Virginia. Ellis provides a complete account of Washington’s life and career, placing it within the context of the eighteenth century United States. He describes how Washington, who skillfully crafted his public personality, was equally adept at crafting a political system for the newly created United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Langston, Thomas S., and Michael G. Sherman. George Washington. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2003. One in a series of books about the American presidents published by the Congressional Quarterly. The authors, who are political scientists, examine Washington’s life, election campaigns, his presidential policies, and the political crises that occurred during his administration. Each of the book’s six chapters includes a brief bibliographic essay.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schwartz, Barry. George Washington: The Making of an American Symbol. New York: Free Press, 1987. An exploration of the iconization of Washington, a process influenced by public events such as Washington’s inauguration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Richard Norton. Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993. Beginning with an account of Washington’s inauguration, this book explores the ways in which Washington defined the presidency.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Washington, George. April-June, 1789. Vol. 2 in The Papers of George Washington: Presidential Series, edited by W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992-1995. Includes the full text of Washington’s address, as well as the fragmentary text discarded.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zagarri, Rosemarie, ed. David Humphreys’ “Life of General Washington” with George Washington’s “Remarks.” Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991. A newly edited version of the authorized biography of Washington, which includes his feelings about the presidency and the difficulties of life in public office.

American Revolutionary War

U.S. Constitution Is Adopted

Judiciary Act

First U.S. Political Parties

Hamilton’s Report on Public Credit

Nootka Sound Convention

Little Turtle’s War

U.S. Bill of Rights Is Ratified

Battle of Fallen Timbers

Jay’s Treaty

Pinckney’s Treaty

Washington’s Farewell Address

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Eighteenth Century</i>

John Adams; Thomas Jefferson; George Washington. Presidency, U.S.

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