President George Washington’s First Inaugural Speech (1789)
President George Washington’s First Inaugural Speech (1789)
On April 16, 1789, two days after receiving official notification of his election, George Washington left his home on the Potomac for New York. Accompanied by Charles Thompson, his official escort, and Col. David Humphreys, his aide, he traveled through Alexandria, Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Trenton, Princeton, New Brunswick, and Bridgetown (now Rahway, NJ). At these and other places along his route, the artillery roared a salute of honor and the citizens and officials presented him with marks of affection and honor, so that his trip became a triumphal procession. On April 23, he crossed the bay from Bridgetown to New York City in a magnificent barge built especially for the occasion.
Lacking precedents to guide them in their preparations for the first Presidential inaugural, Congress appointed a joint committee to consider the time, place, and manner in which to administer to the President the oath of office required by the Constitution. Certain difficulties in planning and arrangements arose from the fact that Congress was meeting in New York’s former City Hall, rechristened Federal Hall, which was in process of renovation under the direction of Pierre L’Enfant. On April 25, Congress adopted the joint committee’s recommendation that the inaugural ceremonies be held the following Thursday, April 30, and that the oath of office be administered to the President in the Representatives’Chamber. The final report of the committee slightly revised this plan with its recommendation that the oath be administered in the outer gallery adjoining the Senate Chamber, “to the end that the Oath of Office may be administered to the President in the most public manner, and that the greatest number of people of the United States, and without distinction, may witness the solemnity.”
On inauguration day, the city was crowded with townspeople and visitors. At half past noon, Washington rode alone in the state coach from his quarters in Franklin Square to Federal Hall on the corner of Wall and Nassau Streets. Troops of the city, members of Congress appointed to escort the President, and heads of executive departments of the government under the Confederation preceded the President’s coach, while to the rear followed ministers of foreign countries and local citizenry.
At Federal Hall, Vice President John Adam, the Senate, and the House of Representatives awaited the President’s arrival in the Senate Chamber. After being received by Congress, Washington stepped from the chamber onto the balcony, where he was followed by the Senators and Representatives. Before the assembled crowd of spectators, Robert Livingston, Chancellor of the State of New York, administered the oath of office prescribed by the Constitution: “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.” After repeating this oath, Washington kissed the Bible held for him by the Chancellor, who called out, “Long live George Washington, President of the United States,” and a salvo of 13 cannons was discharged. Except for taking the oath, the law required no further inaugural ceremonies. But, upon reentering the Senate Chamber, the President read the address that is featured here. After this address, he and the members of Congress proceeded to St. Paul’s Church for divine service. A brilliant fireworks display in the evening ended the official program for this historic day.
First Inaugural Address
New York, NY
Thursday, April 30, 1789
Fellow-Citizens of the Senate and of the House of Representatives:
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—a retreat which was rendered every day more necessary as well as more dear to me by the addition of habit to inclination, and of frequent interruptions in my health to the gradual waste committed on it by time. On the other hand, 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 despondence one who (inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpracticed in the duties of civil administration) ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies. In this conflict of emotions all I dare aver is that it has been my faithful study to collect my duty from a just appreciation of every circumstance by which it might be affected. 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.
Such being the impressions under which I have, in obedience to the public summons, repaired to the present station, it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, 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, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge. In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow-citizens at large less than either. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those 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; and in the important revolution just accomplished in the system of their united government the tranquil deliberations and voluntary consent of so many distinct communities from which the event has resulted can not 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. These reflections, arising out of the present crisis, have forced themselves too strongly on my mind to be suppressed. You will join with me, I trust, in thinking that there are none under the influence of which the proceedings of a new and free government can more auspiciously commence.
By the article establishing the executive department it is made the duty of the President “to recommend to your consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” The circumstances under which I now meet you will acquit me from entering into that subject further than to refer to the great constitutional charter under which you are assembled, and which, in defining your powers, designates the objects to which your attention is to be given. It will be more consistent with those circumstances, and far more congenial with the feelings which actuate me, to substitute, in place of a recommendation of particular measures, the tribute that is due to the talents, the rectitude, and the patriotism which adorn the characters selected to devise and adopt them. In these honorable qualifications I behold the surest pledges that as on one side no local prejudices or attachments, no separate views nor party animosities, will misdirect the comprehensive and equal eye which ought to watch over this great assemblage of communities and interests, so, on another, that the foundation of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality, and the preeminence of free government be exemplified by all the attributes which can win the affections of its citizens and command the respect of the world. I dwell on this prospect with every satisfaction which an ardent love for my country can inspire, since there is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity; since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained; and since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.
Besides the ordinary objects submitted to your care, it will remain with your judgment to decide how far an exercise of the occasional power delegated by the fifth article of the Constitution is rendered expedient at the present juncture by the nature of objections which have been urged against the system, or by the degree of inquietude which has given birth to them. Instead of undertaking particular recommendations on this subject, in which I could be guided by no lights derived from official opportunities, I shall again give way to my entire confidence in your discernment and pursuit of the public good; 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 impregnably fortified or the latter be safely and advantageously promoted.
To the foregoing observations I have one to add, which will be most properly addressed to the House of Representatives. It concerns myself, and will therefore be as brief as possible. When I was first honored with a call into the service of my country, then on the eve of an arduous struggle for its liberties, the light in which I contemplated my duty required that I should renounce every pecuniary compensation. From this resolution I have in no instance departed; and being still under the impressions which produced it, I must decline as inapplicable to myself any share in the personal emoluments which may be indispensably included in a permanent provision for the executive department, and must accordingly pray that the pecuniary estimates for the station in which I am placed may during my continuance in it be limited to such actual expenditures as the public good may be thought to require.
Having thus imparted to you my sentiments as they have been awakened by the occasion which brings us together, I shall take my present leave; but not without resorting once more to the benign Parent of the Human Race in humble supplication that, since He has been pleased to favor the American people with opportunities for deliberating in perfect tranquillity, and dispositions for deciding with unparalleled unanimity on a form of government for the security of their union and the advancement of their happiness, 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.
When George Washington took the oath of office as our first President under the US Constitution, the Nation’s capitol was temporarily located in New York City. The Inauguration took place at the Senate Chamber at the corner of Broad and Wall streets before a joint session of the two houses of Congress. The Bible upon which Washington rested his hand upon receiving his oath of office was from St. John’s Masonic Lodge and the oath was administered by the Chancellor of New York, Robert R. Livingston who like Washington, was a Freemason.
The first US President wore a simple, American-made worsted suit for his inauguration ceremony, as well as his army dress sword which hung from his waist. It was rumored that General Washington, a man of modest means despite his holdings in Virginia, had to borrow money to pay for his trip to New York for the Inauguration.