‘Untrodden Ground’

George Washington and the Story of the First Inaugural Address

Ahead of the 45th president’s inaugural address, here’s a look back at the very first one.

Excerpted from The Daily Beast Editor in Chief John Avlon’s Washington’s Farewell: The Founding Father’s Warning to Future Generations:

George Washington was not looking forward to his first inaugural. Weeks before, he was busy trying to tie up his affairs at Mount Vernon, struggling to secure a loan to pay off his debts while preparing an inaugural address.

Washington worried that he had more to lose than gain by becoming the first president of the United States. He was uncertain of his capacity to serve as a head of state and always covetous of his most precious possession, his reputation. All was not well on the home front, either. Martha was not pleased about the prospective move to New York City undercutting her dreams of a well-deserved retirement. She never cared for politics. Pleading domestic responsibilities, she declined to accompany her husband to his inaugural.

Against this anxious backdrop, Washington began working on the first inaugural address in the winter of 1789. He entrusted the task to his wartime aide-de-camp David Humphreys, a Yale-educated schoolteacher and sometime poet who irritated his colleagues with late-night poetry readings. Humphreys had the advantage of proximity. After the war he lived at Mount Vernon, serving as Washington’s personal secretary. But Humphreys did not have the gift of brevity, and his first draft of the inaugural ran seventy-three pages, a rolling rumination offering patriotic aphorisms, prayer, directions to Congress, and denials of dynastic ambition.

Included in the draft were some memorable lines that survived the scissors of early biographers and admirers, most notably when Washington was to declare, “I rejoice in the belief that mankind will reverse the absurd position that the many were made for the few; and that they will not continue slaves in one part of the globe, when they can be freemen in another.”

Washington copied the speech into his own hand and sent the draft off to James Madison to review in early January 1789 after asking for the most secure means of delivering such a “private and confidential” letter. Madison pronounced it “so strange a production” and quickly decamped to Mount Vernon for a week, where they worked on a new, slimmer draft.

On April Fool’s Day, 1789, Washington wrote General Knox, “my movements to the chair of government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.” Two weeks later, he left Mount Vernon, confessing to his diary that he possessed “a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express.” The Pennsylvania Packet described his departure for duty in dramatic terms: Washington had chosen to “bid adieu to the peaceful retreat of Mount Vernon, in order to save his country once more from confusion and anarchy.”

On the seven-day, 240-mile trip to New York, Washington was greeted with petal-strewn streets and triumphal arches, finding it all a bit embarrassing. He crossed the Hudson into the capital city on a barge surrounded by tall ships and celebratory cannon fire, accompanied by the strains of “God Save the King.” The city boasted a population of 50,000 people, but its character was already established. As John Adams complained, “They talk very loud, very fast and altogether. If they ask you a question, before you can utter three words of your answer they will break out upon you again and talk away.”

New York transformed its old City Hall into a national capital at the hands of French-born revolutionary veteran Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who fitted the structure with marble columns and sixteen-foot windows, establishing the Federalist style of architecture for the cost of $32,000 raised by local citizens. Inside, the walls were adorned with thirteen stars to symbolize the states and a motif of arrows and olive branches underneath forty-six-foot-high ceilings where the House and Senate met.

On the morning of April 30, Washington took the oath of office in the second-floor portico at the top of Broad Street. He wore white stockings and a modest brown broadcloth suit specially ordered from the Hartford Woolen Manufactory in Connecticut, with metal buttons adorned with eagles, while a ceremonial sword hung by his side. The city overflowed with tourists from across the nation, some sleeping in hastily erected tents. A sea of upturned faces packed every street and alley, spread out before him.

Washington spoke in such a low voice that even those close craned their necks to hear him. After improvising “So help me God” and kissing a Bible from a local Masonic temple placed on a crimson pillow, he was proclaimed president of the United States, received a 13-gun salute amid deafening cheers, and then walked into the Senate Chamber to deliver his inaugural address, interposing the personal and the political, the opportunities and the responsibilities of the moment:

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. . . . And since 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.

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It was the first statement of presidential perspective. But a trenchant if often unkind observer, Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania, described an awkward scene in his dishy diary:

This great man was agitated and embarrassed more than he ever was by the leveled cannon or pointed musket. He trembled, and at several times could scarce make out to read, though it must be supposed he had often read it before. He put part of the fingers of his left hand into the side of what I think the tailors call the fall of the breeches, changing the paper into his left hand. After some time he then did the same with some of the fingers of his right hand. When he came to the words “all the world,” he made a flourish with his right hand which left rather an ungainly impression. I sincerely, for my part, wished all set ceremony in the hands of the dancing masters, and that this first of men had read off his address in the plainest manner, without ever taking his eyes from the paper, for I felt hurt that he was not first in everything.

It took Washington twenty minutes to read the 1,400-hundred-word speech. Once the inaugural was completed, with the streets too crowded to accommodate coaches, Washington waded through the cheering crowd to give a prayer of thanksgiving at St. Paul’s Chapel, then attended a private dinner at New York Chancellor Robert Livingston’s house followed by a night of fireworks in a strange city that he would now call his own.

“Good government, the best of blessings, now commences under favorable auspices,” crowed one newspaper. But the path was dimly lit. The Constitution required the separation of powers and presented a broad structure of government guided by republican principles. Its actual operation was a blank slate. And so Washington’s first term was to be preoccupied by establishing the precedent of being president.

“Few who are not philosophical spectators can realize the difficult and delicate part which a man in my situation had to act,” he wrote. “I walk on untrodden ground.”