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The President’s Progress
Washington’s journey to his inauguration resembled a triumphal procession of royalty, but he felt like “a culprit who is going to the place of his execution”
June 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 4
Riding under the first arch, he saw peering at him from the shrubbery a handsome fifteen-year-old girl, whom he perhaps recognized as Peale’s daughter Angelica. She seemed to be encrusted with laurel. He had started to bow to the young lady when she set in motion what the Pennsylvania Packet called “certain machinery.” Something separated from the arch above and, before Washington could duck, landed on his head. Raising a startled hand, he found that he was now crowned with laurel. (The idea was that the hero, in his modesty, would have refused the wreath if offered in a more conventional manner.) According to a Peale family legend, Washington pushed off the wreath but kissed Angelica.
Between the bridge and the city, 20,000 citizens—so the Packet estimated—“lined every fence, field, and avenue. The aged sire, the venerable matron, the blooming virgin, and the ruddy youth were all emulous in their plaudits.” At the city limits, more infantry wheeled and more artillery set matches to their cannon. Then these new units fell into the line behind Washington, as did squads of citizens at every block until (according to the newspaper) “the column was swelled beyond credibility itself.” The parade finally reached the City Tavern, where Washington was tendered “a very grand and beautiful banquet.” The evening was topped off with fireworks.
When the next morning dawned rainy, Washington grasped the opportunity of requesting the city troop of horsemen not to accompany him out of town: “He could not think of travelling under cover while others get wet.” Whatever may have been Washington’s secret relief at being able to leave quietly, his act sent the editor of the Packet into a panegyric on the modesty of an elected leader as contrasted with the pride of European kings.
As Washington crossed the Delaware opposite Trenton, his mind ran on his “situation” there during the darkest days of the Revolution, when he had struck out in utter despair: an icy river—sleet and wind—half-naked, starving men—cannon and musket fire—bloody stumps staining new-fallen snow—an incredible victory that had helped turn the tide.
On reaching the New Jersey shore, Washington was supplied with a fine horse. He led a noisy procession toward the bridge across Assunpink Creek, behind which his army had taken refuge from a superior enemy before he set off on the wild and dangerous circuitous march to Princeton. When Washington saw that the bridge across which his artillery had once so desperately fired was now surmounted with a triumphal arch of evergreens, his first thought may well have been, “What, again?” But this was to be even more affecting. “A numerous train of white robed ladies leading their daughters” stood where Washington had seen men die. Above them, on the top of the arch, a dome of ffowers bore, pricked out in blossoms, the two bloody dates “December 26, 1776—January 2, 1777,” and also a legend: “ THE DEFENDER OF THE MOTHERS WILL BE THE PROTECTOR OF THE DAUGHTERS .”
The procession stopped, and Washington advanced alone. Thirteen young ladies stepped out to meet him. They were dressed in white, decked with wreaths and chaplets of flowers, and held in their hands baskets rilled with more blooms. They sang:
Virgins fair, and Matrons grave , Those thy conquering arms did save , Build for the triumpliant bowers Strew, ye fair, his way with flowers — Strew your Hero’s way with flowers .
They threw their flowers under his horse’s feet.
Writing formally in the third person, Washington later thanked the ladies for the exquisite sensation he experienced in that affecting moment. The astonishing contrast between his former and actual situation at the same spot, the elegant taste with which it was adorned for the present occasion, and the innocent appearance of the white-robed— Choir … have made such impressions on his remembrance, as … will never be effaced.
No knight of ancient legend ever felt more chivalrous toward the fair sex. In wartime, Washington had done everything in his power—even to the detriment of the cause—to prevent women from becoming involved. The memory of the mothers and daughters on the bridge near Trenton would remain with him as an emotional high point till his dying day.
The contrast with this hushed, almost sacred occasion made Washington more and more unpleasantly conscious of the hysterical notes in the plaudits which hour after hour beat continually around him. Did the minings of the orators, the passionate handshakes, the throat-tearing cheers signify an affectionate welcome and reasoned approval of the government about to be established? Or was it all the senseless frenzy of the mob giving way to uncontrolled emotions? There was nothing Washington could do but roll on in his carriage, bow out the window, emerge to shake hands whenever there was a delegation, change to horseback whenever there was a parade to lead.
Finally he was across New Jersey and at Elizabeth, where he was to embark for the fifteen-mile trip by water that would take him past Staten Island, out into the Upper Bay, and then through the inner harbor to the tip of Manhattan Island.