America’s First Presidential Inauguration
On April 30, 1789, George Washington was inaugurated as America’s first president.
Earlier in the year, on February 4, 69 members of Congress unanimously voted to elect Washington the first president of the United States. While Washington was initially reluctant to take the position, he eventually agreed to out of a sense of duty.
Washington borrowed $600 to travel from his home in Mount Vernon, Virginia, to New York City for his inauguration. (New York City was the nation’s capital at the time.) Washington’s journey from Mount Vernon was much like a parade honoring a national hero. Every city and town along the way held a celebration.
Inauguration day began with a military salute at Fort George at sunrise. Then beginning at 9 a.m., church bells throughout New York City rang for a half an hour. At 12:30, Washington left Franklin House for Federal Hall. A military escort of 500 men, a horse troop, artillery, grenadiers, light infantry, and Scottish Highlanders accompanied him. The 57-year-old president-elect rode in a cream-colored coach to Federal Hall at Broad and Wall Streets.
After arriving at Federal Hall, Washington went to the Senate chamber and met with the two houses of Congress. Then at 2 p.m., Washington was brought out onto the balcony outside of the Senate chamber for his inauguration, so “that the greatest number of the people of the United States, and without distinction, may be witnesses to the solemnity.”
There was no Supreme Court or chief justice at the time, so New York’s highest-ranking judge, Chancellor Robert Livingstone, gave the Oath of Office. There was a brief moment of confusion as Livingstone discovered there wasn’t a Bible available. A runner found one at a nearby Masonic Lodge, and Washington’s inauguration was able to continue.
Washington took his oath of office with his hand on a Bible and pronounced “So help me God.” at its conclusion, a tradition that has been followed by all but two US presidents. After he finished his oath, he kissed the Bible and a 13-gun salute followed. Livingston then announced the crowd, “Long live George Washington, president of the United States!”
President Washington then delivered his inaugural address in the Senate Chamber. After the ceremony, the president’s carriage couldn’t be found in the sea of spectators jamming Wall Street. Washington suggested that the vice president and members of Congress walk with him as he traveled seven blocks to a previously arranged church service. Fireworks, paid for by private citizens, concluded the inaugural celebration that evening.
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