The adoption of the Federal Constitution was another epoch in the life of Washington. Before the official forms of an election could be carried into operation, a unanimous sentiment throughout the Union pronounced him the nation's choice to fill the presidential chair. He looked forward to the possibility of his election with characteristic modesty and unfeigned reluctance; as his letters to his confidential friends bear witness. "It has no fascinating allurements for me," writes he to Lafayette. "At any time of life and under my circumstances, the increasing infirmities of nature and the growing love of retirement do not permit me to entertain a wish beyond that of living and dying an honest man on my own farm. Let those follow the pursuits of ambition and fame who have a keener relish for them, or who may have more years in store for the enjoyment." . . .

To Lafayette he declares that his difficulties increase and multiply as he draws toward the period when, according to common belief, it will be necessary for him to give a definite answer as to the office in question. "Should circumstances render it in a number inevitably necessary, to be in the affirmative," writes he "I shall assume the task with the most unfeigned reluctance, and with a real diffidence , for which I shall probably receive no credit from the world. If I know my own heart, nothing short of a conviction of duty will induce me again to take an active part in public affairs; and in that case, if I can form a plan for my own conduct, my endeavors shall be unremittingly exerted, even at the hazard of former fame or present popularity, to extricate my country from the embarrassments in which it is entangled through want of credit; and to establish a general system of policy, which if pursued will insure permanent felicity to the commonwealth. I think I see a path clear and direct as a ray of light, which leads to the attainment of that object. Nothing but harmony, honesty, industry, and frugality, are necessary to make us a great and happy people. Happily the present posture of affairs, and the prevailing disposition of my countrymen, promise to cooperate in establishing those four great and essential pillars of public felicity."

The election took place at the appointed time, and it was soon ascertained that Washington was chosen President for the term of four years from the 4th of March. By this time the arguments and entreaties of his friends, and his own convictions of public expediency, had determined him to accept; and he made preparations to depart for the seat of government, as soon as he should receive official notice of his election. Among other duties, he paid a visit to his mother at Fredericksburg; it was a painful, because likely to be a final one, for she was afflicted with a malady which, it was evident, must soon terminate her life. Their parting was affectionate, but solemn; she had always been reserved and moderate in expressing herself in regard to the successes of her son; but it must have been a serene satisfaction at the close of life to see him elevated by his virtues to the highest honor of his country.

From a delay in forming a quorum of Congress, the votes of the electoral college were not counted until early in April, when they were found to be unanimous in favor of Washington. . . . At length, on the 14th of April, he received a letter from the President of Congress, duly notifying him of his election; and he prepared to set out immediately for New York, the seat of government. An entry in his diary, dated the 16th, says: "About ten o'clock I bade adieu to Mount Vernon, to private life, and to domestic felicity; and with a mind opprest with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express, set out for New York with the best disposition to render services to my country in obedience to its call, but with less hope of answering its expectations.

At the first stage of his journey a trial of his tenderest feelings awaited him in a public dinner given him at Alexandria, by his neighbors and personal friends, among whom he had lived in the constant interchange of kind offices, and who were so aware of the practical beneficence of his private character. A deep feeling of regret mingled with their festivity. The mayor, who presided, and spoke of the sentiments of the people of Alexandria, deplored in his departure the loss of the first and best of their citizens, the ornament of the aged, the model of the young, the improver of their agriculture, the friend of their commerce, the protector of their infant academy, the benefactor of their poor—but "go," added he, "and make a grateful people happy, who will be doubly grateful when they contemplate this new sacrifice for their interests."

Washington was too deeply affected for many words in reply. "Just after having bade adieu to my domestic connections," said he, "this tender proof of your friendship is but too well calculated to awaken still further my sensibility, and increase my regret at parting from the enjoyments of private life. All that now remains for me is to commit myself and you to the care of that beneficent Being, who, on a former occasion, happily brought us together after a long and distressing separation. Perhaps the same gracious Providence will again indulge me. But words fail me. Unutterable sensations must, then, be left to more expressive silence, while from an aching heart I bid all my affectionate friends and kind neighbors farewell!"

His progress to the seat of government was a continual ovation. The ringing of bells and roaring of cannonry proclaimed his course through the country. The old and young, women and children, thronged the highways to bless and welcome him. Deputations of the most respectable inhabitants from the principal places came forth to meet and escort him. At Baltimore, on his arrival and departure, his carriage was attended by a numerous cavalcade of citizens, and he was saluted by the thunder of artillery.

At the frontier of Pennsylvania he was met by his former companion in arms, Mifflin, now governor of the State, who with Judge Peters and a civil and military escort, was waiting to receive him. Washington had hoped to be spared all military parade, but found it was not to be evaded. At Chester, where he stopt to breakfast, there were preparations for a public entrance into Philadelphia. Cavalry had assembled from the surrounding country; a superb white horse was led out for Washington to mount, and a grand procession set forward, with General St. Clair of Revolutionary notoriety at his head. It gathered numbers as it advanced; passed under triumphal arches entwined with laurel, and entered Philadelphia amid the shouts of the multitude. . . .

We question whether any of these testimonials of a nation's gratitude affected Washington more sensibly than those he received at Trenton. It was on a sunny afternoon when he arrived on the banks of the Delaware, where, twelve years before he had crossed in darkness and storm, through clouds of snow and drifts of floating ice, on his daring attempt to strike a blow at a triumphant enemy.

Here at present all was peace and sunshine, the broad river flowed placidly along, and crowds awaited him on the opposite bank, to hail him with love and transport.

We will not dwell on the joyous ceremonials with which he was welcomed, but there was one too peculiar to be omitted. The reader may remember Washington's gloomy night on the banks of the Assunpink, which flows through Trenton; the campfires of Cornwallis in front of him; the Delaware full of floating ice in the rear; and his sudden resolve on that midnight retreat which turned the fortunes of the campaign. On the bridge crossing that eventful stream, the ladies of Trenton had caused a triumphal arch to be erected. It was entwined with evergreens and laurels, and bore the inscription: "The defender of the mothers will be the protector of the daughters." At this bridge the matrons of the city were assembled to pay him reverence; and as he passed under the arch, a number of young girls, drest in white and crowned with garlands, strewed flowers before him, singing an ode expressive of their love and gratitude. Never was ovation more graceful, touching, and sincere; and Washington, tenderly affected, declared that the impression of it on his heart could never be effaced.

The whole progress through New Jersey must have afforded a similar contrast to his weary marchings to and fro, harassed by doubts and perplexities, with bale fires blazing on its hills, instead of festive illuminations, and when the ringing of bells and booming of cannon, now so joyous, were the signals of invasion and maraud.

In respect to his reception at New York, Washington had signified in a letter to Governor Clinton, that none could be so congenial to his feelings as a quiet entry devoid of ceremony; but his modest wishes were not complied with. At Elizabethtown Point, a committee of both Houses of Congress, with various civic functionaries, waited by appointment to receive him. He embarked on board of a splendid barge, constructed for the occasion. It was manned by thirteen branch pilots, masters of vessels, in white uniforms, and commanded by Commodore Nicholson. Other barges, fancifully decorated, followed, having on board the heads of departments and other public officers, and several distinguished citizens. As they passed through the strait between the Jerseys and Staten Island, called the Kills, other boats decorated with flags fell in their wake, until the whole, forming a nautical procession, swept up the broad and beautiful bay of New York, to the sound of instrumental music. On board of two vessels were parties of ladies and gentlemen who sang congratulatory odes as Washington's barge approached. The ships at anchor in the harbor, drest in colors, fired salutes as it passed. One alone, the Galveston, a Spanish man-of-war, displayed no signs of gratulation, until the barge of the general was nearly abreast; when suddenly, as if by magic, the yards were manned, the ship burst forth, as it were, into a full array of flags and signals, and thundered a salute of thirteen guns. He approached the landing place of Murray's Wharf, amid the ringing of bells, the roaring of cannonry, and the shouting of multitudes collected on every pier-head. On landing, he was received by Governor Clinton. . . .

Carpets had been spread to a carriage prepared to convey him to his destined residence, but he preferred to walk. He was attended by a long civil and military train. In the streets through which he passed the houses were decorated with flags, silken banners, garlands of flowers and evergreens, and bore his name in every form of ornament. The streets were crowded with people, so that it was with difficulty a passage could be made by the city officers. Washington frequently bowed to the multitude as he passed, taking off his hat to the ladies, who thronged every window waving their handkerchiefs, throwing flowers before him, and many of them shedding tears of enthusiasm. . .

The inauguration was delayed for several days, in which a question arose as to the form or title by which the President-elect was to be addrest; and a committee in both Houses was appointed to report upon the subject. The question was stated without Washington's privity, and contrary to his desire; as he feared that any title might awaken the sensitive jealousy of republicans, at a moment when it was all-important to conciliate public good-will to the new form of government. It was a relief to him, therefore, when it was finally resolved that the address should be simply "the President of the United States," without any addition of title; a judicious form, which has remained to the present day.

The inauguration took place on the 30th of April. At nine o'clock in the morning, there were religious services in all the churches, and prayers put up for the blessing of Heaven on the new government. At twelve o'clock the city troops paraded before Washington's door, and soon after the committees of Congress and heads of departments came in their carriages. At half-past twelve the procession moved forward, preceded by the troops; next came the committee and heads of departments in their carriages; then Washington in a coach of state, his aide-de-camp, Colonel Humphreys, and his secretary, Mr. Lear, in his own carriage. The foreign ministers and a long train of citizens brought up the rear.

About two hundred yards before reaching the hall, Washington and his suite alighted from their carriages, and passed through the troops, who were drawn up on each side, into the hall and senate chamber, where the Vice President, the Senate and House of Representatives were assembled.2 The Vice-President, Mr. Adams, recently inaugurated, advanced and conducted Washington to a chair of state at the upper end of the room. A solemn silence prevailed; when the Vice-President rose, and informed him that all things were prepared for him to take the oath of office required by the Constitution.

The oath was to be administered by the Chancellor of the State of New York,3 in a balcony in front of the senate chamber, and in full view of an immense multitude, occupying the street, the windows, and even roofs of the adjacent houses. The balcony formed a kind of open recess, with lofty columns supporting the roof. In the center was a table with a covering of crimson velvet, upon which lay a superbly bound Bible on a crimson velvet cushion. This was all the paraphernalia for the august scene.

All eyes were fixt upon the balcony, when, at the appointed hour, Washington made his appearance, accompanied by various public functionaries, and members of the Senate and House of Representatives. He was clad in a full suit of dark-brown cloth, of American manufacture, with a steel-hilted dress sword, white silk stockings, and silver shoe-buckles. His hair was drest and powdered in the fashion of the day, and worn in a bag and soltaire.

His entrance on the balcony was hailed by universal shouts. He was evidently moved by this demonstration of public affection. Advancing to the front of the balcony, he laid his hand upon his heart, bowed several times, and then retreated to an armchair near the table. The populace appeared to understand that the scene had overcome him; and were hushed at once into profound silence. After a few moments Washington rose and again came forward. John Adams, the Vice-President, stood on his right; on his left the chancellor of the State, Robert R. Livingston; somewhat in the rear were Roger Sherman, Alexander Hamilton, Generals Knox, St. Clair, the Baron Steuben, and others.

The chancellor advanced to administer the oath prescribed by the Constitution, and Mr. Otis, the secretary of the Senate, held up the Bible on its crimson cushion. The oath was read slowly and distinctly; Washington at the same time laying his hand on the open Bible. When it was concluded, he replied solemnly, "I swear—so help me God!" Mr. Otis would have raised the Bible to his lips, but he bowed down reverently and kissed it.

The chancellor now stept forward, waved his hand and exclaimed: "Long live George Washington, President of the United States!" At this moment a flag was displayed on the cupola of the hall, on which signal there was a general discharge of artillery on the Battery. All the bells of the city rang out a joyful peal, and the multitude rent the air with acclamations.

Washington again bowed to the people and returned into the senate chamber, where he delivered, to both houses of Congress, his inaugural address, characterized by his usual modesty, moderation, and good sense, but uttered with a voice deep, slightly tremulous, and so low as to demand close attention in the listeners. After this he proceeded with the whole assemblage on foot to St. Paul's Church,4 where prayers suited to the occasion were read by Dr. Prevost, Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in New York, who had been appointed by the Senate one of the chaplains of Congress. So closed the ceremonies of the inauguration.

1 From Irving's "Life of Washington." By permission of the publishers, G. P. Putnam's Sons.
Return to text.

2 In the building called Federal Hall, on the site occupied by the Sub-treasury. Here now stands the colossal statue of Washington, by J. Q. A. Ward.
Return to text.

3 The Bible used on this occasion still exists, the property of a Masonic Lodge in New York, from which it was borrowed at the time for the purpose. So carefully is it guarded that when lent for ceremonious occasions, an officer of the lodge always accompanies it.
Return to text.

4 The pew used by Washington while he remained in New York in still preserved in St. Paul's, and is marked with a commemorative tablet.
Return to text.




As the company returned into the senate chamber, the President took the chair and the Senators and Representatives their seats. He rose, and all arose also, and addrest them. This great man was agitated and embarrassed more than ever he was by the leveled cannon or pointed musket. He trembled, and several times could scarce make out to read, tho 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. He was drest in deep brown, with metal buttons, with an eagle on them, white stockings, a bag, and sword. . . .

[Aug. 27.] Senate adjourned early. At a little after four I called on Mr. Bassett, of the Delaware State. He went to the President's to dinner6 The President and Mrs. Washington sat opposite each other in the middle of the table; the two secretaries, one at each end. It was a great dinner, and the best of the kind I ever was at. The room, however, was disagreeably warm.

First was the soup; fish roasted and boiled; meats, gammon, fowls, etc. This was the dinner. The middle of the table was garnished in the usual tasty way, with small images, flowers (artificial), etc. The dessert was, first apple-pies, puddings, etc.; then iced creams, jellies, etc., then watermelons, muskmelons, apples, peaches, nuts.

It was the most solemn dinner ever I sat at. Not a health drank; scarce a word said until the cloth was taken away. Then the President, filling a glass of wine, with great formality drank to the health of every individual by name round the table. Everybody imitated him, charged glasses, and such a buzz of "health, sir," and "health, madam," and "thank you, sir," and "thank you, madam," never had I heard before. Indeed, I had liked to have been thrown out in the hurry; but I got a little wine in my glass, and passed the ceremony. The ladies sat a good while, and the bottles passed about; but there was a dead silence almost. Mrs. Washington at last withdrew with the ladies.

I expected the men would now begin, but the same stillness remained. The President told of a New England clergyman who had lost a hat and wig in passing a river called the Brunks. He smiled, and everybody else laughed. He now and then said a sentence or two on some common subject, and what he said was not amiss. The President kept a fork in his hand, when the cloth was taken away, I thought for the purpose of picking nuts. He ate no nuts, however, but played with the fork, striking on the edge of the table with it. We did not sit long after the ladies retired. The President rose, went upstairs to drink coffee; the company followed. I took my hat and came home.

This was levee day, and I accordingly drest and did the needful. It is an idle thing, but what is the life of men but folly?—and this is perhaps as innocent as any of them, so far as respects the persons acting. The practise, however, considered as a feature of royalty, is certainly anti-republican. This certainly escapes nobody. The royalists glory in it as a point gained. Republicans are borne down by fashion and a fear of being charged with a want of respect to General Washington. If there is treason in the wish I retract it, but would to God this same General Washington were in heaven! We would not then have him brought forward as the constant cover to every unconstitutional and irrepublican act.

5 From Maclay's "Journal," edited by Edgar S. Maclay. William Maclay was a United States Senator from Pennsylvania. He had served in the war with France and in the Revolution and belonged to the extreme wing of those who favored radical democratic ideas in government. He thus became prominent in the opposition to Washington and the Federalists. The passage herewith given from his "Journal" illustrates his point of view. It is printed here by permission of Edgar S. Maclay, author of a well-known "History of the Navy."
Return to text.

6 The house occupied by Washington during his residence in New York was the Franklin House, which stood on the north side of what is now known as Franklin Square. It was built about 1770.
Return to text.

Table of Contents
Return to Main Page
© 2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman