George Washington’s First Inauguration

GW oathOn April 30, 1789, George Washington became the first President of the United States when he was inaugurated on a second floor balcony at Federal Hall in New York City.  The oath was administered by Chancellor of New York Robert Livingston, and used a Bible that belonged to St. John’s Masonic Lodge No. 1.  After taking the oath, the crowd below cheered, and Washington was given a thirteen gun salute.  He and Congress then went inside Federal Hall where Washington delivered his First Inaugural Address to a joint session of Congress.

Several times during the address Washington referred to his election as a “call” or a “summons” from his country, even lamenting being called out of a peaceful retirement.  Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania observed in his diary that as Washington delivered his speech, he was nervous to the point that he visibly trembled and fumbled his paper:

“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, though it must be supposed he had often read it before.

“He put part of the fingers of his left hand into the side of what I think the tailors call the fall of the breeches (corresponding to the modern side-pocket), changing the paper into his left (right) hand.  After some time he then did the same with some of the fingers of his right hand.”

Washington’s repeated references to his “obedience to the public summons” do more than just communicate his hesitance to accept the office; they communicate his Lockean “social contract” understanding of the newly formed government.  In other words, Washington understood his election as the initiation of a social contract between himself and the people of the United States, and since it was initiated by the people themselves, he was obligated to fulfill his duty.  In one instance, Washington makes supplication to “that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe…that his benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the People of the United States, a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes….”

Notably, Washington intentionally avoids making policy recommendations in his address, with one important exception.  Making mention of the Fifth Article of the Constitution, which empowers Congress to make amendments to the Constitution, Washington humbly alludes to the adoption of a Bill of Rights.

“For I assure myself that whilst you carefully avoid every alteration which might endanger the benefits of an United and effective Government, or which ought to await the future lessons of experience; a reverence for the characteristic rights of freemen, and a regard for the public harmony, will sufficiently influence your deliberations on the question how far the former can be more impregnably fortified, or the latter be safely and advantageously promoted.”

This point, too, reiterates Washington’s understanding of the government as a social contract which is constantly negotiated between the people and the state in an effort to balance individual liberty with collective safety and happiness.

The image below shows the end of Washington’s handwritten copy of the address, with the benediction and his signature:  “…so his divine blessing may be equally conspicuous in the enlarged views, the temperate consultations, and the wise measures on which the success of this Government must depend.  George Washington”cropped-gw-inaug-signature.gif


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