On April 30, 1789, George Washington took the oath of office to be president of the United States at Federal Hall in New York. It was a defining moment in American, and indeed, world history.
Washington was the first man elected to be the president of a Constitutional Republic and would become a model for all American chief executives thereafter. He remains the only presidential candidate to be chosen unanimously by electors.
The only other man who came close to be unanimously elected was James Monroe, who ran virtually unopposed in his second term. New Hampshire senator, William Plumer gave his vote to Secretary of State John Quincy Adams instead of Monroe.
It is incredible that in a time as contentious and fractious as the early days of the American Republic, a single leader could unite all factions in the way that Washington did. It was a true testament to his influence and the confidence that the country had in him.
On the day of his inauguration, Washington wore a brown, American made suit, woven at Mount Vernon. On the suit was a strip of buttons displaying the federal eagle, which was budding symbol for the new nation.
Washington wore the suit and buttons to show support for American manufacturers, which had been made illegal under British rule. Like most of the men who followed him in the office of the presidency, Washington knew the power of symbolism and how it shaped public opinion.
The process of inauguration had been delayed because Congress could not assemble a quorum on March 4, which was the official day that the president was supposed to be sworn in. Over 30,000 New Yorkers were present in the city to see Washington pass through and speak. Washington stood on the balcony of Federal Hall and faced onlookers below.
According to accounts of the swearing in ceremony; Washington added a line to his oath that would become a presidential tradition. When asked by the chancellor of New York, Robert Livingston if he solemnly swore to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States,” Washington repeated the line and added “So help me God.”
Washington gave an elegant but straightforward inaugural address that was brilliant in its simplicity.
For a man who at times had nearly single-handedly kept the American Revolution and budding nation alive, Washington spoke humbly before the people of the United States who had entrusted him with the highest office in the land.
The magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my Country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most experienced of her citizens, a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications, could not but overwhelm with dispondence, one, who, inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpractised in the duties of civil administration, ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies.
On top of speaking humbly before the people of the United States, Washington credited his success and the nation’s achievement in securing its liberties to “providence” and the “Almighty Being.”
There were few specifics in Washington’s speech on his policies, foreign or domestic, but he did lay out certain principles that he wished to impart to the American people and, undoubtedly, to the generations of Americans that would look for guidance in the years ahead.
Of national policy Washington said, “The foundations of our National policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality; and the pre-eminence of a free Government, be exemplified by all the attributes which can win the affections of its Citizens, and command the respect of the world.”
According to Washington, the virtue of the American people themselves would be necessary to preserve the “sacred fire of liberty.”
Fisher Ames, a Founding Father from Massachusetts of high repute as both a leader and orator, said of Washington’s address, “It seemed to me an allegory in which virtue was personified, and addressing those whom she would make her votaries. Her power over the heart was never greater.”
Ames also said that he “sat entranced” when hearing Washington’s address to Congress and that it “produced emotions of the most effecting kind” on the newly elected members of the first Congress.
It is important to remember that the presidency is not just an administrative office but is expected to be occupied by the best representative of the American people, a protector and champion of all that is American.
Washington was the epitome of American strength, revolutionary values and leadership. He was the “indispensible man” of the American Revolution, would remain indispensible during his eight years in office, and is, perhaps, the most significant single individual in human affairs over the past two centuries.
During his lifetime, Washington would shape America; when he was dead and gone, America would shape the world.