“No Event Could Have Filled Me with Greater Anxieties”: George Washington and the First Inaugural Address, April 30, 1789

by Phillip Hamilton

George Washington, by Rembrandt Peale, ca. 1852 (Gilder Lehrman Collection)George Washington’s fame rests not upon his words but upon his deeds. Therefore, his First Inaugural Address is sometimes overlooked. This is unfortunate because the words he delivered on Thursday, April 30, 1789, not only launched the new Constitution but also established important and lasting precedents that later presidents have honored and followed. General George Washington began the month of April 1789 in a pessimistic mood, however. Although he knew he would soon become the first President of the United States, the Revolutionary War hero dreaded the job. On the morning of April 1, he penned a dour letter to his old comrade-in-arms and soon-to-be secretary of war, Henry Knox. Washington wrote that “an Ocean of difficulties” awaited him at the seat of power in New York City. Indeed, he would be responsible for setting the constitutional government in motion even though many Americans remained opposed to the new national charter. The general, moreover, would have to provide energetic leadership so that the country could effectively cope with a long list of weighty economic, political, and foreign policy problems. The fifty-seven-year-old Washington told Knox that, because he had never before served in an administrative office, he wondered if he possessed “that competency of political skill, abilities & inclination which is necessary to manage the helm.” Therefore, the general finished, “my movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied with feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of execution.”[1]   

Despite his grim state of mind, Washington had (as always) prepared himself well for both the presidency and his inauguration. He had served as president of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Although he did not participate in its daily deliberations, he had carefully watched as the system of government was stitched together. He had also closely followed the ratification debates throughout the country. Knowing he very likely would be chosen as president of the new nation and that consequential precedents would flow from his actions, Washington studied the chief executive’s constitutional responsibilities with particular care. The general, moreover, instinctively understood the importance of public ritual and ceremony in all important occasions—and the launching of the United States’ new national government was certainly one of those occasions. The right words had to be found and the proper tone of conduct had to be struck. Washington therefore decided that he must deliver an inaugural address even though the Constitution does not mention one.

As early as January 1789, the general asked his private secretary at Mount Vernon, David Humphreys, to write up a possible speech. Humphreys promptly produced a ponderous seventy-three-page document, which unfortunately has survived only in fragments.[2] Its surviving portions, however, reveal a speech very different from the one Washington would later deliver. In addition to its excessive length, Humphreys’s speech had Washington defensively claim that he entered the presidency with absolutely no desire to enrich himself. Nor did he wish to establish a family dynasty. Indeed, given his childless state, Washington was to say that he could not do so even if he wished. The address also contained a long list of legislative initiatives and constitutional amendments that Congress should pass. 

Although Washington laboriously copied the speech in his own hand, he sensed that it did not suit the occasion. He confidentially forwarded it to James Madison for his opinion. Madison later called Humphreys’s address an “extraordinary production,” and, during a visit to Mount Vernon on February 22, told Washington it should not be used.[3] Inside the mansion on the Potomac River, the two Founding Fathers also discussed the inaugural address that Washington should give. Most historians agree that the general at some point asked Madison to prepare an alternative speech. What remains uncertain, however, is exactly when Madison wrote up his draft. It may have been during the February visit to Mount Vernon or it could have been written later, with Washington editing it only after he arrived in New York City. Whatever the case, the pair at some point decided upon some general themes and guidelines. First, they determined that the speech should be relatively short, lasting only twenty minutes or so. Second, Washington should admit his private “disinclination” for the office but say that he would assume the presidency out of civic duty and love of country. Third, Washington and Madison jettisoned Humphreys’s list of specific legislative measures, with the President instead focusing on broad and positive goals for the new government. Finally, the speech should touch upon themes that would become staples in almost all subsequent presidential inaugurals: an acknowledgment of the role of Providence in the nation’s affairs, a salute to the American people’s freedom and unity, and praise for the United States’ system of self-government. 

Seven weeks later, on April 14, Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson arrived at Mount Vernon bearing a letter from John Langdon, the president pro tempore of the US Senate. The missive informed the general that the Electoral College had met on February 4 and unanimously elected him the first President of the United States. Two days later, President-elect Washington, Thomson, and Humphreys left for New York City. Washington had had some hopes that his journey northward and subsequent entry into the nation’s temporary capital would be “quiet [and] devoid of ceremony.”[4] Within hours of setting off, however, such hopes vanished. The American people wanted to see their longtime hero and a soon-to-be president, and Washington felt duty-bound to oblige them. In Alexandria, a mere nine miles from his mansion, he found an elaborate dinner (to be followed by the ubiquitous thirteen toasts) waiting for him. The President-elect endured more dinners and toasts during visits to Baltimore and Wilmington. In Philadelphia, 20,000 citizens turned out to see their hero. The crowds not only watched Washington enter the city on horseback but also saw a “certain machinery” (designed by the artist Charles Willson Peale) lower a laurel wreath upon his head.[5] Outside Trenton, thirteen white-robed teenage girls tossed flowers at Washington’s feet as he rode into the town where his greatest military triumph had occurred. For the eight-day journey’s final leg on April 23, an extravagant forty-seven-foot barge, decked out with elegant red curtains and twenty-six white-uniformed oarsmen (thirteen on each side), carried Washington to Murray’s Wharf on Manhattan Island. As Washington glanced behind him, he saw scores of crowded vessels sailing in his barge’s wake. As he looked forward, he saw hordes of additional well-wishers waiting for him on shore and in the city’s streets. When the barge made landfall, Washington gave up all thoughts of heading by carriage through the city’s overflowing streets to his lodging on Cherry Street. He decided instead to traverse the half mile on foot.

With the swearing-in ceremonies scheduled for the last day of the month, Washington spent part of the week holed up with Madison editing and polishing the final version of the address. On the morning of April 30, Washington dressed himself in a dark-brown suit of Connecticut-made broadcloth with buttons featuring an eagle spreading its wings. After powdering his hair, he buckled on a dress sword and placed his eight-page address into his pocket. At precisely noon, a military escort and delegation from Congress arrived at his residence to escort the President-elect to the recently renovated City Hall, now renamed Federal Hall. Traveling in the presidential carriage with his personal secretaries, Tobias Lear and David Humphreys, Washington saw at least 10,000 spectators gathered outside the building as they approached. Walking through a double line of soldiers, Washington went upstairs to the Senate Chamber where members of Congress waited for him. Rising as soon as the President-elect entered, they watched as Washington respectfully bowed. Vice President John Adams delivered Congress’s official greeting and asked if Washington was ready. “I am ready to proceed,” he answered. 

Congressional planners decided that the presidential oath ought to take place in public before the people who were, after all, sovereign in this new republic. As Washington stepped onto Federal Hall’s second-floor balcony, a roar came up from below. Placing one hand over his heart, he bowed to the people. At the balcony’s center was a velvet-draped table holding a large Bible obtained that morning from a nearby Masonic lodge. Washington placed his hand on the Bible, brought forward on a crimson cushion, and New York Chancellor Robert R. Livingston administered the oath. Upon its completion, Washington picked up the Bible and solemnly kissed it.[6] As thirteen cannons fired in salute, Livingston waved his hat and shouted to the crowd, “It is done. Long live George Washington, President of the United States.” Amid more cheers, the President strode back into the Senate Chamber. Congress once more rose in respect and then members seated themselves as Washington pulled his address from his pocket.[7]

Perhaps overcome by his countrymen’s heartfelt affection or maybe sensing the profound importance of the occasion, Washington actually shook when he began speaking. Deeply moved, Massachusetts Congressman Fisher Ames watched intently. “It was a very touching scene,” he remembered, “. . . His aspect grave, almost to sadness; his modesty, actually shaking; his voice deep, a little tremulous, and so low as to call for close attention.” Pennsylvania Senator William Maclay also watched the new president with surprise: “This great man was agitated and embarrassed more than ever he was by the leveled cannon or pointed musket.”[8]

Washington began on a personal note. Explaining his own internal conflict between public duty and private inclination, he said “no event could have filled me with greater anxieties” than when Charles Thomson had arrived at Mount Vernon with news of his election. “On the one hand,” he continued, “I was summoned by my Country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love.” Yet answering this call required Washington to leave his beloved Mount Vernon, “a retreat, which I had chosen with the fondest predilection” to be “the asylum of my declining years.” Pointing modestly to his own “inferior endowments,” the President also wondered aloud whether he was up to “the duties of civil administration.” But, “in obedience to the public summons,” he had “repaired to the present station” to serve as his nation’s president.

Washington in his “first official act” as chief executive then offered his “fervent supplications” to the “Almighty Being who rules over the Universe” so “that his benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the People of the United States” and to “a Government instituted by themselves.” The President, moreover, raised a theme to which many subsequent inaugural addresses would return—America as a land favored by Providence. Washington explained:

No People can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States. Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.

The President even claimed that the Constitution’s recent ratification—“the important revolution just accomplished”—pointed to the nation’s special favor with the “Almighty Being”:

. . . the tranquil deliberations and voluntary consent of so many distinct communities, from which the event has resulted, cannot be compared with the means by which most Governments have been established, without some return of pious gratitude along with an humble anticipation of the future blessings which the past seem to presage.

The President changed subjects at this point and turned to his role as the nation’s chief executive. Quoting the Constitution’s Article Two, he noted that it was “the duty of the President ‘to recommend to your consideration, such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.’” David Humphreys had taken this constitutional command literally in his draft address. Convinced that dictating specific legislation to Congress would perhaps appear like monarchical commands, however, Washington offered no recommendations. He would instead defer to “the talents, the rectitude, and the patriotism” of Congress to devise “particular measures” essential to the republic. Respecting the separation of powers and focused on the larger goal of maintaining national unity, Washington said that he trusted that “no local prejudices, or attachments; no separate views, nor party animosities” among members of the government would upset “the foundations of our National policy.” He reminded them, furthermore, that the stakes were very high, not only for themselves, but for all posterity. Because “the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people,” those leading this new federal government must always act with the highest virtue and integrity. 

The only particular recommendation the President offered had to do with constitutional amendments. Given the “objections” of the Antifederalists to the Constitution (particularly its lack of a bill of rights) and “the degree of inquietude” that had resulted during the ratification debates, Washington thought it “expedient at the present juncture” for Congress to consider some amendments. Yet here too he deferred to the legislative branch’s wisdom and prerogative, saying only, “I shall again give way to my entire confidence in your discernment and pursuit of the public good.”

As Washington began reading the final two sections of his address, fifteen minutes had likely elapsed and he clearly moved toward his conclusion. In his penultimate paragraph, the President renewed the pledge he had famously made in 1775: he would serve without salary and requested reimbursement only for those “actual expenses as the public good may be thought to require.” Finally, he once more “resort[ed] to the benign parent of the human race in humble supplication,” appealing for him “to favour the American people, with opportunities for deliberating in perfect tranquility, and dispositions for deciding with unparellelled unanimity on a form of Government, for the security of their Union, and the advancement of their happiness.” 

As Washington placed the address back in his pocket and retook his seat in the Chamber, reviews and appraisals of the speech were already taking shape. Senator William Maclay, for instance, was not impressed. He criticized Washington later that evening in his diary, writing about the President’s agitation and trembling while he spoke. Maclay also criticized an awkward gesture Washington made at one point when he “made a flourish with his right hand, which left rather an ungainly impression.”[9] But Maclay was in a minority. Fisher Ames’s opinions probably expressed the views of most in the chamber.  “I . . . sat entranced,” he confessed. “It seemed to me an allegory in which virtue was personified.”[10] The French minister to the United States, the Comte de Moustier, who sat in the Senate Chamber as a guest, also proclaimed Washington’s speech a triumph. It was, he wrote his superiors in Paris, “a very moving address.” The President spoke of “the current state of events,” he explained, “in the most vivid colors and with the air of dignity and candor that only he possesses.” He concluded, “The memory of the former services of this great man, his current exaltation, his modesty, all this helps lend greater influence to his words.”[11]

After the ceremony, Washington’s own day was far from over. He soon emerged from Federal Hall to lead congressional members on foot to nearby St. Paul’s Chapel for a brief Episcopal prayer service. A carriage brought Washington back to his Cherry Street residence where he privately dined. Another coach arrived soon after dinner to carry the President to the day’s final events. He attended, first, a reception at the home of Chancellor Livingston and then a two-hour fireworks display at General Knox’s residence. As he traveled back home through city streets still so crowded that he once more had to walk, the President saw his image illuminated via transparencies in countless windows throughout the city. Finally, an exhausted Washington made it home and, at last, to bed.

Audio clip provided by BackStory with the American History Guys

George Washington’s first inauguration and his eight-page address are well worth remembering and studying today. As he did so often throughout his career, Washington set a number of precedents that have shaped all subsequent inaugurations. The first is perhaps the most crucial—Washington’s decision to give a speech in the first place. Although not required by the Constitution, Washington recognized that he must speak to his people at the start of his administration, and all later presidents have followed his lead. Second, Washington decided that an inaugural speech was no place for political and legislative minutiae. Realizing that his most important task lay in launching the new Constitution upon an affirmative and optimistic note, he focused on large and unifying themes. Confident in the “talents” and “patriotism” of Congress, he expected everyone to work together toward a “united and effective government” that would possess “a reverence for the characteristic rights of freemen and a regard for the public harmony.” Hence, the American people could rest assured that their hard-won liberties were safe and their national government lay in virtuous hands. Finally, as many presidents would later do, Washington acknowledged America’s special favor of that “Almighty Being” whose “invisible hand” had so greatly benefited the country since the commencement of its Revolution. And, if the members of this new federal government performed their duties with virtue and integrity, he said, “the propitious smiles of Heaven” would continue to shine upon the United States. Because George Washington answered his country’s “summons” on April 30, 1789, he would confront many difficulties and challenges in the years ahead. But the care and attention he took in preparing and delivering this first presidential inaugural address ensured that the new constitutional government began on a positive and encouraging note.  

[1] George Washington to Henry Knox, April 1, 1789. (The Gilder Lehrman Collection) Other worries beset the former Continental Army commander that April. In particular, his personal finances related to his Mount Vernon estate burdened him day and night. Several weeks before, Washington had had to borrow £500 to pay his taxes and an additional £100 simply to cover his expected travel expenses to his own inauguration.

[2] The Humphreys draft of the address was lost when Jared Sparks concluded that, because the speech was not delivered, it was not of any historical value. Sparks cut the document up in snippets to send to individuals seeking examples of Washington’s handwriting. Surviving fragments have been reassembled through the diligent efforts of the editors of The Papers of George Washington [henceforth, PGW]. They are republished in W.W. Abbot et al., eds., The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, April–June 1789 (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1987), 2:158–173. For more information regarding the fate of the Humphreys draft, see PGW, 2:152–154.

[3] PGW, 2:153.

[4] Washington wrote these words to New York Governor George Clinton, quoted in James Thomas Flexner, George Washington and the New Nation, 1783–1793 (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1969), 172.

[5] The phrase “certain machinery” is from the Pennsylvania Packet, quoted in Flexner, 175

[6] Over the years, there has been considerable speculation regarding whether or not Washington added “so help me God” to the oath. It seems highly unlikely to this writer. Not only did Washington scrupulously follow constitutional protocol during his inauguration, but the claim that he uttered these words exists nowhere in the contemporary record. The assertion that Washington said the phrase was first made by Rufus Griswold in The Republican Court, published in 1855. The most compelling case against Washington uttering “so help me God” is by Peter Henriques, in “‘So Help Me God’: A George Washington Myth that Should Be Discarded,” History News Network, January 11, 2009 (http://hnn.us/articles/59548.html).

[7] Congressional members seated themselves only partially for their comfort. The larger significance was that, unlike Parliament’s House of Commons where members always remained standing during a king’s address, Congress wished to demonstrate that it was equal to the executive branch under this new Constitution. 

[8]  PGW, 2:155.

[9] Diary of William Maclay, April 30, 1789, in The Diary of William Maclay and Other Notes on Senate Debates, ed. Kenneth R. Bowling and Helen E. Veit (Balitmore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), 13.

[10] Ames’ remarks are quoted in both Flexner, 3:188 and Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington, a Biography: Patriot and President (New York: Scribner, 1948), 6:195.

[11] “Comte de Moustier, Description of the Inauguration,” Documentary History of the First Federal Congress, 1789–1791, Vol. 15, edited by Charlene Bangs Bickford et al. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 404 405 .

Phillip Hamilton is an associate professor of history at Christopher Newport University.

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I enjoyed reading about Washington's first inauguration. I consider it to be an important moment in the creation of our government. I've written about this moment in a book about Washington and was glad to see this essay.
Carla Killough McClafferty

Too many stories have been written about the "First President", today I had the opportunity to read apart of history that is not often read The Inauguration". I think I will start my American History Class with this speech so that they could make a comparison of the time and the audience that the United States are faced with. A good opportunity to use the comparison contrast map to show the differences, The vocabulary is great!

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