After taking the oath of office on the portico at Federal Hall in New York City on April 30, 1789 before a cheering crowd, George Washington proceeded into the Senate chamber to deliver his First Inaugural Address. According to assembled members of Congress, Washington was visibly nervous, spoke in a surprisingly quiet voice, and maintained a serious, modest demeanor.
Washington began his Address by expressing his anxiety at being elected the first President under the new Constitutional charter and was fully aware that he was "unpractised in the duties of civil administration." Washington then called attention to what he perceived as the obvious operations of "providential agency"—or the workings of the "Almighty Being" in human historical affairs—in the achievement of the independence of the United States and the formulation of a unifying Constitution by the "voluntary consent of so many distinct communities."
Because the Constitution required that the Executive "recommend" to Congress "such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient," Washington then used the latter half of the Inaugural Address to respond to this mandate. Choosing explicitly to avoid specific recommendations, however, Washington emphasized to the members of Congress their duty to lay "the foundations of our national policy...in the pure and immutable principles of private morality" while following "the eternal rules of order and right," reflecting his vision of the presidency as cooperative with the legislative branch.1 The First Inaugural Address took around ten minutes to deliver.
Historians believe the First Inaugural Address Washington delivered on April 30 was drafted by James Madison. An earlier draft of over seventy pages had been prepared by Washington's aide David Humphreys and included extensive recommendations to Congress on such topics as internal improvements, military affairs, international treaties, and the expansion of national borders. After a private meeting at Mount Vernon, Madison (who later called his rambling first draft a "strange production") prepared a drastically more concise address.2 The major points emphasized in this final version were present in the original draft. However, whereas the original draft took a cautious approach to immediately amending the Constitution, the final version left the subject more open to Congress' discretion.
Though both drafts of the Address were prepared by other writers, the First Inaugural Address Washington delivered on April 30 contains elements that remained consistent throughout his writings as President. Washington expressed a self-effacing caveat regarding his "own deficiencies," a humble indication of his submission to the call of public duty when "summoned by my Country," and a rationalistic determination that "the foundations of our national policy" must "be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality" by its elected officials, given the "indissoluble union between virtue and happiness."3
On the advice of his cabinet, Washington chose to make his Second Inauguration far less public than his first, and his Second Inaugural Address set the record for the shortest given by any President: 135 words briefly acknowledging his reelection. The simplicity of his Second Address may have also been related to his own express reservations against "commencing another tour of duty" when he so earnestly wished "to return to the walks of private life" at Mount Vernon.4
William Etter, Ph.D.
Irvine Valley College
1. George Washington, "First Inaugural Address, 30 April 1789," George Washington, Writings, ed. John Rodehamel (New York: Library of America, 1997), 730-734.
3. Washington, "First Inaugural Address," 731, 732-733.
4. Thomas Jefferson, "Notes on Washington's Second Inauguration and Republicanism," in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 25, ed. John Catanzariti (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 301; "George Washington to Henry Lee, 20 January 1793," in George Washington, Writings, ed. John Rodehamel (New York: Library of America, 1997), 833.
"Fisher Ames to George Richards Minot, New York, 3 May 1789," Works of Fisher Ames, Vol. 1, ed. Seth Ames. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1854, 34-36.
Burnes, James MacGregor and Susan Dunn. George Washington. New York: Times Books, 2004.
Flexner, James Thomas. Washington: The Indispensable Man. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1974.
Gregg II, Gary L. and Matthew Spalding. Patriot Sage: George Washington and the American Political Tradition. Wilmington: ISI Books, 1999.