Thursday, April 30, 2009
It was on this day in 1789 that George Washington took office as the first president of the United States. Two weeks earlier, he had begun his journey from his home in Mount Vernon to New York City, where the inauguration would take place. He wrote in his journal on April 16th:
About 10 o'clock I bade adieu to Mount Vernon, to private life, and to domestic felicity, and with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express, set out for New York in company with Mr. Thompson, and Colonel Humphries, with the best dispositions to render service to my country in obedience to its call, but with less hope of answering its expectations.
It took him seven days to travel the 300-mile route to New York City, then the nation's capital. He passed through crowds of cheering well-wishers along the way, following a path that went through Alexandria, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Trenton, Princeton, and New Brunswick. When he reached Bridgetown, New Jersey, there was waiting for him a large barge built just for the occasion and manned by 13 pilots all dressed in white. A Spanish vessel anchored in the harbor fired 13 guns as a salute and displayed the flags of nations all over the world.
It took the House and the Senate a few more days to work out the details of the inauguration, including how to address the president. Vice President John Adams thought it should be, "His Highness, the President of the United States and Protector of their Liberties." Others thought "His Serene Highness" or "His Excellency" or "Mr. Washington" were better choices. The ad hoc Congressional Committee finally decided on "The President of the United States."
The Oath of Office took place at Federal Hall on the corner of Wall Street and Nassau Street, on a balcony outside so that many people could witness it. Washington wore a dark brown suit, white silk stockings, shoes with silver buckles, and a sword. New York Chancellor Robert Livingston administered the Oath: "I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States."
Washington appended the words "so help me God" to the Oath and then kissed the open Bible, which had been missing moments before the ceremony, and when found for the oath had been hastily opened to a random page, which turned out to be Genesis 49. In his inaugural address, Washington asked for the divine blessing of the "benign Parent of the Human Race" on the new government.