The Story of America's First Inauguration Day
On the day that George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States, it was reportedly cloudy. The president-elect made his audience wait for an hour and ten minutes. He wore a brown suit. He was so nervous he trembled, and he didn’t give the speech he had originally written. Here’s what happened.
At sunrise on April 30, 1789, George Washington awoke to the familiar sound of gunfire. Thirteen cannons at the south end of Manhattan roared a salute; then all the church bells of New York began to ring. Today he would be inaugurated as the first president of the United States.
A Reluctant President
George Washington was alone. Martha had stayed at Mount Vernon, and Washington probably wished he had, too. The night before he left, he wrote to friends: “I approach the chair of government with feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to his place of execution.”
There had been so many guards of honor, triumphal arches, and other civic festivities on his way north that he was exhausted. He had written to New York’s Governor Clinton asking that he be allowed to enter the city without ceremony, but when he reached the Jersey shore to cross over to Manhattan, he was placed in a fancy barge manned by 13 sea captains and rowed to the Battery through a flotilla of cheering spectators.
How “His Highness” Became Mr. President
Washington was supposed to have been inaugurated on the fourth of March, as specified in the Constitution. The delay was due to muddy roads that postponed the arrival of the new Congress and then a lengthy debate over how the new president should be addressed. Fire companies and cricket clubs had presidents, said vice president-elect John Adams.
The dignity of the nation required something grander: “His Highness the President of the United States and Protector of the Rights of the Same” was Adams‘s suggestion. Congress decided to stick with “Mr. President.” Washington himself was relieved, telling his son-in-law, “Happily the matter is now done with, I hope never to be revived.”
The Brown Suit
Washington, who probably would have balked at being called “your Highness,” rose shortly after sunrise, powdered his hair, and put on his sword and a suit of brown woolen broadcloth with silver buttons. His suit was a gift from the just-opened Hartford Manufacturing Company in Connecticut, the first U.S. wool-fabric maker. Wearing it was a political statement that the new nation had no need to buy its clothes from England. It was also a coup for Congressman Jeremiah Wadsworth of Connecticut, who was behind the idea of the gift. He knew that fashionable New Yorkers would pay close attention to what the president wore to his inauguration and promised he could sell another 100 yards afterwards. Indeed, brown broadcloth from Hartford became all the rage.
A little after noon a delegation from Congress arrived at the house where Washington was staying to escort him to the Federal Hall, where the ceremony would take place. They climbed into a carriage drawn by four horses and started making their way slowly through the huge crowds. The short trip, through what is now Pearl Street and then to Broad, was so delayed by the throng that it took more than an hour.
A Cloudy Day
No one knows for sure what the weather was like. Sixty-five years after the fact, the aged Washington Irving recalled that it was cloudy early in the day but that the sun came out around nine. Mary Hunt Palmer, who was 14 at the time, had a different recollection. She reported in 1858 that it had rained so furiously that Washington himself had carried an umbrella on his way to the Federal Building. Contemporary accounts are silent on the weather, which suggests that nothing so remarkable as a heavy rain occurred.
If it had, it surely would have been recorded by Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania, whose eyewitness account of the inauguration is the most entertaining, if somewhat biased, guide to what truly happened. Maclay was a republican with a small “r,“ one of those who, like Jefferson, disdained pomp and detested “His Rotundity.”
According to Maclay, the Senate met at 11:30 that morning, and while waiting for the President-elect to arrive, got embroiled in a furious debate, initiated by Adams, over whether the Senators should stand or sit during Washington’s inaugural speech.
Before the issue could be settled, the clerk of the House of Representatives came to the door with a message from the Speaker. This touched off a new debate over how such a message should be received - should the clerk be allowed into the Senate Chambers? Who should escort him? Adams was in a dither.
The crisis intensified when word came that the Speaker himself and all the Representatives were now cooling their heels at the door. “Confusion ensued,” Maclay commented. Finally the Speaker and the House were permitted to enter, where, Maclay recorded, “we sat an hour and ten minutes before the president arrived.”
An Hour and 10 Minute Delay
Finally the great man appeared. Adams welcomed him, saying: “Sir, the Senate and the House of Representatives are ready to attend you to take the oath required by the Constitution.” Then, wrote Maclay, Adams “seemed to have forgot what he was to say, for he made a dead pause and stood for some time … in a vacant mood.“
Adams eventually bowed and led Washington and other dignitaries to a balcony overlooking Wall and Broad streets. The streets, windows, and rooftops were packed, and when the people saw their hero on the balcony, they howled with delight. The general was apparently overcome with emotion; he bowed three or four times, placed his hand over his heart, then sank into a chair for a few moments. Then he stood and placed his hand on the Bible. The tumult ceased.
”He trembled, and several times could scarce make out to read.”
Robert Livingston, the Chancellor of New York, asked: “Do you solemnly swear that you will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States and will, to the best of your ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States?”
Washington swore the oath, then kissed the Bible. Livingston turned to the crowd and cried, “Long live George Washington, president of the United States!” The masses repeated the accolade and gave the new president three mighty cheers; The flag was hoisted to the cupola of the Federal Building, cannons boomed, and the church bells clanged again. Washington bowed to the crowd a few more times, then went back into the Senate chambers to deliver his inaugural speech. The legislators, still in the dark about protocol, rose when he did, but he bowed and everyone sat down again.
The Inaugural Speech
It was not a very good speech, nor was it well delivered. Maclay noted that “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.” Washington nervously transferred his speech from one hand to the other, placing the free hand in his trouser pocket, and at one point made a flourish with his right hand, “which left rather an ungainly impression.” Maclay blamed the president’s poor showing on the “dancingmasters” who insisted on unrepublican formality. But he admitted that “the composition may be termed heavy, dull, stupid.”
Maclay might have liked better the inaugural speech that Washington didn’t give. It was 62 pages long, and only fragments of it remain, but what’s there is colorful and compelling. In it, Washington seems obsessed with the dangers of unchecked ambition: “ … no Wall of words … no mound of parchment can be so formed as to stand against the sweeping torrent of boundless ambition,” he warns the legislators, and repeats, “they should guard against ambition as their greatest enemy.”
No one knows why he chose not to make that speech. Washington was a man of strong passions — Gilbert Stuart, after painting his portrait, said, “Had he been born in the forests, he would have been the fiercest man among the savages ” — but he kept them under stern control. Looking at the unbridled language of his first draft, he may have decided that it revealed too much and that it was safer to stick to the bland text he mumbled in New York. Even in war, Washington was better at avoiding disaster than achieving brilliant victories.
After the speech, everyone walked uptown to St. Paul‘s Chapel for divine services. That evening there were fireworks and illuminations, and a round of parties featuring “transparent paintings.” One historian, harking back to Revolutionary War defeats on the same ground, declared that “at last, after many years, Washington had captured New York.”
Washington was beloved and Americans began celebrating his presidency during his lifetime with festivities on the anniversary of his “birth night” — February 22. Washington’s birth night thus became the nation’s first national celebration. In 1879, the United States made Washington’s Birthday (February 22) a federal holiday.
In modern day, this holiday is observed on the third Monday in February and is frequently referred to as “Presidents’ Day.” This is because Congress passed the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” in 1968 to provide uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Mondays and, thereby, ensure three-day weekends for federal employees.
However, Presidents’ Day was never made official name of the holiday. The U.S. government never officially changed the name from George Washington’s Birthday!
–This archival article originally appeared in The 1989 Old Farmer’s Almanac.
Enjoy learning about George Washington? Did you know The Old Farmer’s Almanac was founded during his presidency? Here are two more articles from the archives: