That Monday, Washington became the first man to be inaugurated president a second time. He also became the first president inaugurated on March 4, which would thereafter become one of the most important dates in the American political calendar—that is, until the ratification of the Twentieth Amendment in 1933, which moved the beginning of a presidential term to January 20. While the First Congress had been called to convene on March 4, 1789, Washington’s inauguration that year had come in late April, unavoidably delayed by the process of organizing the government. Beginning in 1793 and for nearly a century and a half, March 4 would become the standard date when one presidential term ended and another began.
Washington entered the Senate chamber precisely at noon, before an audience that included members of both houses of Congress, his own Cabinet, justices of the Supreme Court, foreign ministers, and “a number of private citizens, ladies and gentlemen,” according to the Philadelphia National Gazette. Vice President John Adams, who in many accounts is often mistakenly described as present, had left Philadelphia to attend to his wife, Abigail, during an illness. In his place, President Pro Tempore John Langdon called the proceedings to order by addressing Washington directly: “Sir, one of the Judges of the Supreme Court of the United States is now present, and ready to administer to you the oath required by the constitution, to be taken by the President of the United States.”
Washington stood and, to put it simply, briefly explained to Congress why it was that he had chosen to take the oath “in your presence.” He first noted that he would wait until “the occasion proper for it shall arrive” to go into more detail about “the high sense I entertain of this distinguished honor.” That time would come nine months later, in early December 1793, when Washington delivered his annual message to Congress and described both his “gratitude” and his “earnest wish for… retirement.”
On this day, at his second inaugural ceremony, Washington chose to focus on the oath itself and the public accountability it demanded. Should it be found that he had “in any instance, violated, willingly or knowingly, the injunction” of that constitutional oath, Washington asked to be held accountable, both to the strictures of “Constitutional punishment” (he refers here, of course, to impeachment) and to “the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony.” The man whom Americans most trusted to hold power spent the entirety of his Second Inaugural asking those around him to hold him accountable, both legally and morally, to the oath he was about to take.
Explore Washington's Full Address