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President Washington's Inauguration in New York City

On April 23, 1789, president-elect George Washington was escorted by a joint congressional committee onto a specially-prepared barge for the trip to New York City. The vessel, with a keel of 47 feet, sported a mast and sail festooned with red curtains, an awning and 13 oars on both sides. The oarsmen, all New York pilots, wore identical white smocks and black caps. Directed by coxswain Thomas Randall. the barge shoved out about noon, moving across Newark Bay and up the New York Bay towards the city.

Artist's rendering of the 18th century brig Galveztown (St. Augustine Lighthouse)
Artist's rendering of the 18th century brig Galveztown (St. Augustine Lighthouse)

With a wide assortment of decorated crafts following the presidential barge, an impromptu maritime procession was formed. Upon passing the Battery in Staten Island, 13 guns fired their smoking salutes, directing all the vessels to display their flags. As Washington sailed closer to his destination at the foot of Wall Street, he encountered not only American ships but also a Spanish sloop of war, the Galveston, and a British packet. The packet fired a 13-gun salute which was answered by an American battery. The Galveston then fired 15 cannons, the first of these was "so powerful in its detonation " that it inspired five cheers instead of the customary three huzzahs.





Washington himself noted that:

The display of boats which attended and joined us on this occasion, some with vocal and some with instrumental music on board; the decorations of the ships, the roar of cannon, and the loud acclamations of the people which rent the skies, as I passed along the wharves, filled my mind with sensations as painful (considering the reverse of this scene, which may be the case after all my labors to do good) as they are pleasing.

As the barge landed at Murray's wharf sometime between 2 and 3 o'clock, Washington was greeted by his old acquaintance Governor George Clinton and thousands of cheering New Yorkers. Escorted by military guard to Franklin House at No. 3 Cherry Street, Washington barely had the opportunity to catch his breath when he was whisked away to Governor Clinton's mansion for an elaborate and extended dinner.

First Presidential Mansion, occupied by President Washington and his family, April 1789 - February 1790 (Wikimedia)
First Presidential Mansion, occupied by President Washington and his family, April 1789 - February 1790 (Wikimedia)

By the time the exhausted guest of honor retired to his new home, visions of this magnificent trip must have raced across his mind. Despite the gushing adulation bestowed upon him almost every step of the way, Washington was, in fact, humbled and concerned.

I greatly apprehend ... that my countrymen will expect too much from me. I fear, if the issue of public measures should not correspond with their sanguine expectations, they will turn the extravagant (and I may say undue) praises which they are heaping upon me at this moment, into equally extravagant (though I will fondly hope, unmerited) censures.'

Ed Larson on President Washington's Inaugural Speech
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Ed Larson on President Washington's Inaugural Speech

The oath was to be taken at Federal Hall a week after Washington's arrival in New York. The time elapsed quickly, as a constant flow of visitors to Cherry Street caused Washington to declare,

I was unable to attend to any business whatsoever; for Gentlemen, consulting their own convenience rather than mine, were calling from the time I rose from breakfast, often before, until I sat down to dinner.

The Inauguration Ceremony

April 30, 1789

On the morning of the 30th, George Washington dressed in a suit of brown broadcloth made at the Hartford Woolen Manufactory in Hartford, Connecticut. The suit was adorned with gilt buttons engraved with the arms of the United States.

Following the arrival of the president-elect, committees in both the Senate and House of Representatives, “appointed to consider of the time, place, and manner in which, and of the person by whom the oath prescribed by the Constitution shall be administered to the President of the United States” met, both separately and together, to discuss the ceremonies associated with the inauguration. In addition to deciding on the seating lists and order of various processions, they determined that Congress would assemble at noon on the chosen day; that Washington would be “FORMALLY” received by both houses of Congress in the Senate Chamber; that, in addition to American officials and New York state notables, diplomats from France and Spain would also be present in the Senate chamber; that the oath would be administered by the Chancellor of the state of New York, Robert Livingston (1746-1813) on the gallery [balcony] outside the Senate Chamber so “that the greatest number of the people of the United States, and without distinction, may be witnesses to the solemnity”; and that following the swearing-in, both the Senators and Congressmen would accompany the new President in a ceremonial procession to St. Paul’s Chapel, in order to “hear divine service, to be performed by the Chaplain of Congress.” Afterwards, Washington would “be received at the door of the Church, by the Committees, and by them attended in carriages to his residence.” 

John Adams by artist Benjamin Blythe (Wikimedia)
John Adams by artist Benjamin Blythe (Wikimedia)

Washington was escorted by numerous representatives to Federal Hall about half past noon. Upon arriving, he entered the Senate chamber where the two houses of Congress awaited their new head of state. John Adams, elected Vice President, formally welcomed Washington. Robert Livingston, Chancellor of New York, administered the oath, and Samuel Otis, Secretary of the Senate, held the ceremonial Bible. From the portico overlooking Wall and Broad Streets, Livingston turned to the teeming streets below and shouted, "Long live George Washington, President of the United States!"

At this point, an 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, who had described the streets as "so dense that it seemed as if one might literally walk on the heads of people," stated:

All the bells in the city rang out a peal of joy ... The President bowed ... to the people and then retired from a scene such as the proudest monarch could never have enjoyed-the delight not only of his own nation and people, but for all mankind.

After taking the oath of office on the balcony of Federal Hall, President Washington went back inside the Senate Chamber to deliver his inaugural address. Massachusetts Congressman Fisher Ames (1758-1808) wrote:

Washington addressed the two Houses in the Senate chamber; it was a very touching scene, and quite of the solemn kind. His aspect grave, almost to sadness; his modesty, actually shaking; his voice deep, a little tremulous, and so low as to call for close attention; added to the series of objects presented to the mind, and overwhelming it, produced emotions of the most affecting kind upon the members.

The new President, in the company of Vice President John Adams, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and both Houses of Congress then proceeded to St. Paul’s Chapel for the church service, over which the Right Reverend Dr. Samuel Provoost (1742-1815), the Episcopal Bishop of New York and Chaplain to the Senate, presided.

Afterwards, Washington, in a carriage, was “escorted to his residence,” where he dined alone.

The Afterparty

The evening was marked with illuminations and fireworks. Boston merchant John May (1748-1812) reported that the fireworks “on the bowling green” were “well executed” and “greeted with tumultuous applause,” but he was particularly taken with the illuminations, which he described in detail:

…The Spanish Ambassador’s house was illuminated so as to represent Wisdom, Justice, Fortitude, Sun, Moon, Stars, Spanish Arms, etc. The French ambassador also illuminated handsomely. Federal Hall also presented a fine appearance. The likeness of our Hero [Washington], illuminated, was presented in the window of a house, at a little distance. The best likeness I have yet seen of him, so much like him that one could hardly distinguish it from life--excepting for the situation, over a beer-house, a place he never frequents. The best thing of all was a picture of the United States; the President at full length the central figure: on his right, Justice; over his head, Fortitude; on his left, Wisdom. High over his head were two female figures in gay colors, and supporting on their arms the American Eagle….

Along with his aides, David Humphreys (1752-1818) and Tobias Lear (1762-1816), Washington rode in a carriage to the homes of Chancellor Livingston and General Henry Knox (1750-1806), in order to see the fireworks and illuminations.

There were so many people out that night that the new president and escorts eventually had to leave the carriage and were forced to walk home instead!

Representing the Arrival of General George Washington at the Battery, New York, April 30, 1789, engraved by John C. McRae, after Henry Brueckner (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)