May 082013

I have been researching this post for several days. I have so much primary source information that I’ve decided to create an ebook that includes a study guide to help you learn about the topic in greater depth, as well as teaching the material to your children. It will contain eye witness accounts, diary entries, letters, news and magazine posts, additional thoughts Washington chose not to include in first inaugural address, as well as lengthier material from quotes included below.….Stay tuned!

With good reason, George Washington is often viewed in larger than life terms. Yet, as you will see, he was very much a human being. April 30th marked the anniversary of his first inauguration. The year was 1789, and the place was Federal Hall in New York City. The Revolution had been won. The Constitution written and ratified. The election held, and the Electoral College votes counted. George Washington had been unanimously elected, with 69 votes, as the first President of the United States. A vote of confidence not given to any other leader of the Executive Branch by the People since that time. 

Washington had only been officially notified of his election 16 days prior to the inauguration ceremony. The Congress of Confederation had called for the President to be sworn in on March 4, 1789. However, bad weather had prevented the House of Representatives from achieving a quorum until April 1. The Senate was not able to achieve a quorum until April 6, but after which a joint session was immediately held to count the electoral votes. On that same day, congratulatory letters streamed toward Mount Vernon from notables such as James Madison, Richard Henry Lee, and Robert Morris. On April 14, Washington received an letter from the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, John Langdon from New Hampshire, announcing the outcome of the Electoral College ballots. 

Was George Washington elated about the election outcome? Did he arrogantly assume he was the only man for the job? Was he anticipating that a reception fit for a king would be made ready for him in New York? Quite the contrary! Two days later, when George Washington left for New York, his journal entry reflected his obvious anxiety about becoming the first President: “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.” Between the time that he was officially notified of his election, and day he was sworn into office, Washington wrote a series of letters articulating his apprehension about serving as the new nation’s commander-in-chief. One such example is a letter written to the President and Faculty of the University of Pennsylvania that included the following: “Probably my fellow-citizens anticipate too many and too great advantages from the appointment—It will however be an object, indeed near to my heart, to verify as far as may be in my power, those favorable presentiments, by endeavoring to secure the liberty and promote the happiness of the american People”.

While George Washington had reservations about becoming President, and returning to public service, they were not shared by others. By all accounts, the man who most Americans desired as their first President was George Washington. He had led them to independence as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, and then he had done much to hold the thirteen states together in years immediately following General Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown. As an example of the People’s confidence in Washington, James Madison wrote to Edmund Randolph on May 10, 1789: “No question has been made in this quarter or elsewhere as far as I have learned, whether the Genl ought to have accepted the Trust. On the contrary opinions have been unanimous & decided that it was essential to the commencement of the Government and a duty from which no private considerations could absolve him.”

Despite his trepidations, George Washington accepted the election results and set off for New York. Given his reservations, I have to wonder if he was taken aback by the reception he received enroute. Indeed, he may have been overwhelmed by the pomp and circumstance surrounding the first inauguration that awaited him in New York. A ceremonial procession brought George Washington from Mount Vernon to New York City. Members of Congress, government officials, Continental Army officers and enlisted men, prominent citizens, and even members of local militias traveled with Washington at various points of the journey. He traveled through the towns of Alexandria, Georgetown, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Trenton. As he passed through various cities, accounts were published about the procession, and letters of thanks from Washington to the citizens were published as well. When he reached Elizabeth Town, New Jersey on April 23, he boarded a barge which would take him to New York. However, the barge did not deliver Washington directly to a procession that would lead him to Federal Hall. Washington’s inauguration had been further delayed as the House and Senate haggled over the details of the inauguration ceremony. During that period, Washington wrote numerous letters as he waited in his residence on Cherry Street in New York. 

Washington was finally taken to Federal Hall on April 30. Using a Bible hastily borrowed from the St. John’s Masonic Lodge Number 1, Robert R. Livingston swore him in as president. The Supreme Court had not yet assembled, and Chancellor Livingston was the highest judicial officer available to administer the oath of office. After Washington was sworn into office on the balcony, as portrayed in the attached image, Livingston proclaimed, “Long live George Washington President of the United States.” The crowded, if not chaotic, scene below the balcony was documented in magazines and newspaper posts. 
Washington then returned to the Senate Chamber where he would deliver his first inaugural address. Before reading on, think about the images you have seen portraying George Washington as a military commander. Perhaps the most famous two are of him crossing the Delaware (as can be seen on: or on a winter’s day at Valley Forge (as can be seen on These pictures portray him as a strong and confident military leader. On April 30, 1789, however, George Washington assumed a much different role. By all accounts he was reluctant about leading the nation. 

He began his first inaugural address with the following words: “AMONG the vicissitudes incident to life no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order, and received on the 14th day of the present month. On the one hand, I was summoned by my country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love, from a retreat which I had chosen with the fondest predilection, and, in my flattering hopes, with an immutable decision, as the asylum of my declining years….All I dare hope is that if, in executing this task, I have been too much swayed by a grateful remembrance of former instances, or by an affectionate sensibility to this transcendent proof of the confidence of my fellow-citizens, and have thence too little consulted my incapacity as well as disinclination for the weighty and untried cares before me, my error will be palliated by the motives which mislead me, and its consequences be judged by my country with some share of the partiality in which they originated.” As Washington read those words, he was clearly uneasy. In his journal, Senator William Maclay, provided a lengthy eye witness account of Washington’s demeanor. Perhaps the most poignant description found the new president to be: “agitated and embarassed more than ever he was by the levelled 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.”

It is clear that the enormity of the moment had overtaken Washington, but he could hardly be blamed for such an emotional response. He had settled into retirement only to be thrust into a role for which he felt he had little preparation. Additionally, little guidance had been given concerning how President Washington should conduct himself, or the Executive Branch, on a day-to-day basis. It gives me pause to think of George Washington as a man who reluctantly assumed the presidency. Despite his extraordinary abilities, he was clearly a man of great humanity and humility as well.

Read the complete text of George Washington’s First Inaugural Address here:

I’ll let you know when that ebook is ready to go!

As always, please take a moment to remember What IS Right With America!


Susan C. Rempel, Ph.D.


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