Justice Kennedy on George Washington
Watch our interview with Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. Learn about the vital role that Washington played during our founding.
On April 30, 1789, George Washington was inaugurated as the first president. The path to the presidency, and the task of leading a new nation, was uncharted territory for which there was no precedent.
George Washington, as the first president, was well aware of the great responsibility of defining the American presidency. "I walk on untrodden ground," was a frequent comment he made in the days leading up to his first inauguration.
Washington believed that the precedents he set must make the presidency powerful enough to function effectively in the national government, but at the same time these practices could not show any tendency toward monarchy or dictatorship.
In addition to defining the actual powers of the office, Washington also needed to show the new nation how the leader of a democracy should behave socially. There was no precedent for this office in a world full of kings, leaving Washington the monumental task of figuring out how to act like a president.
Presidential candidates of the 21st century spend millions of dollars winning the endorsements of their parties and mounting nationwide campaigns. But Washington himself did absolutely no public campaigning, and even cast doubt on whether he would take the job if elected. The retired general said that he had "no wish which aspires beyond the humble and happy lot of living and dying a private citizen" at his Mount Vernon farm.
After winning the Revolutionary War and helping set up the new government for his country at the Constitutional Convention, George Washington's thoughts turned away from battlefields and assembly halls to a much more modest arena-- his home at his Mount Vernon estate -- and the opportunity of "living and dying a private citizen on my own farm."
Yet, his dreams of a tranquil retirement were at odds with his peers and the American people at large. Even before the Constitution was ratified, rumors spread declaring George Washington would likely elected first President of the United States (much to the dismay of Washington himself).
On the other hand, Washington could not escape his conscience. In a formal letter of acceptance, Washington succinctly assented to what he had agonized over for more than a year:
Having concluded to obey the important and flattering call of my Country ....
In both the election of 1789 and 1792 Washington received all votes from the Electoral College. During the first election, Washington won the electors of all ten eligible states. Three states, however, did not contribute to the vote total. Both North Carolina and Rhode Island were ineligible; neither had ratified the Constitution yet. In addition, New York was unable to participate in the election, as the legislature had not passed a bill in time to appoint its eight electors. In 1792, Washington received all 132 electoral votes, winning each of the fifteen states.
However, neither of those cities was Washington, D.C., as the seat of government did not move there until 1800. Washington’s first inauguration occurred in New York City on the portico of Federal Hall in Lower Manhattan on April 30, 1789. The second inauguration was in Philadelphia, held in the Senate Chamber of Congress Hall on March 4, 1793.
One month after President Washington left Mount Vernon, Martha Washington set out on her own triumphant trip to the seat of the new government in New York. On May 16 1789, Mrs. Washington and her grandchildren, Nelly and Washy, embarked on an 11-day journey through Baltimore, Philadelphia, and more.
Her entourage attracted considerable attention and was greeted by crowded streets filled with admirers, ringing church bells, fireworks, and gun salutes.
President Washington's inauguration was celebrated with illuminations and fireworks. Citizens of the new nation showed up in droves. One exhilarated eyewitness recalled that " ... my sensibility was wound to such a pitch that I could do no more than wave my hat with the rest, without the power of joining in the requested acclamations which rent the air!" Another described the streets as "so dense that it seemed as if one might literally walk on the heads of people".
Although John Ramage (circa 1748-1802) is well-known among art historians and collectors of portrait miniatures, his name is not immediately associated with Washington portraiture. Yet, Ramage painted George Washington from the life and was the first artist to whom he sat as President of the United States.
Ramage was in Boston, Massachussetts when the Revolutionary War broke out. There he enlisted in a unit formed by Irish Loyalists to fight the American colonials and General Washington’s Continental Army. After the war, he became firmly established in New York’s small artistic community.
Considered the best artist in the city, he was the obvious choice for Washington's first presidential portrait. The sitting took place on October 3, 1789, probably in the president's official residence on Cherry Street in New York.
James Madison later called the rambling first draft a "strange production". The first 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 prepared a drastically more concise address which left more open to Congress's discretion.
George Washington's copy of the Acts passed at a Congress of the United States of America (New-York, 1789) contains key founding documents establishing the Union: the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and a record of acts passed by the first Congress.
The most significant features of this book are Washington’s personal notes, penciled in the margins. All of his notes in this volume appear alongside the text of the Constitution, where he drew neat brackets to highlight passages of particular interest.
Washington brought the book home to Mount Vernon after retiring from the presidency in March 1797. Since leaving the hands of the Washington family in 1876, it has been treasured and preserved by several noted private collectors. The book now resides within The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington.
Unanimously elected twice, President George Washington helped shape the office's future role and powers, as well as set both formal and informal precedents for future presidents.Learn More