- Historic Sites
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
He found awaiting him a sumptuous barge that had been built especially for the occasion at the expense of forty-six leading citizens. It was forty-seven feet long at the keel, and over the elegantly appointed deck stretched an awning festooned with red curtains. There was a mast and a sail, but the main reliance was to be on the oars, thirteen on each side, which were manned by a picked group of New York harbor pilots, all dressed in white smocks and black-fringed caps.
Onto the deck there trooped, after Washington, representatives from the state and city governments, from the Senate and the House of Representatives. The vessel had hardly started to move before a naval parade began to form behind it. Among the first to fall in were the New Haven and Rhode Island packets. Washington was pleased to see, in another boat, two familiar faces: John Jay and Henry Knox. For the rest, there were more vessels and mostly strange faces.
As Washington’s barge came opposite a battery on Staten Island, cannon began, firing a thirteen-gun salute. At this signal, all the boats broke out, like so many suddenly opening flowers, into a splurge of banners. Then, from closer to Manhattan, there spoke out a tremendous voice. A Spanish warship was echoing the salute with larger guns than any the infant republic possessed. And the stranger from Europe also had more flags: her rigging bloomed, to applause, with the ensigns of twenty-seven—or was it twenty-eight?—different nations.
As the pilots rowed with perfect rhythm down the bay, a sloop under lull sail slipped gracefully along side. Two gentlemen and two ladies stood facing Washington and, as the water scudded between, they sang new words to “God Save the King.” (The verses were printed on broadsides like the one above.)
Washington had hardly taken oft his hat and bowed to acknowledge the compliment when another musical boat appeared directly alongside the first. The singers leaned over the water to exchange music, and then all rendered an ode in elaborate parts. “Our worthy President,” one witness exulted, “was greatly affected by those tokens of profound respect.”
As if Nature herself wished to join in the adulation, a number of porpoises frolicked briefly in front of Washington’s barge. Then Washington’s eyes were suddenly caught by an even more remarkable sight. The Antifederalist journalist Philip Freneau was bowing to Washington from a vessel “dressed and decorated in the most superb manner” but featuring on its deck “Dr. King from South Africa with a collection of natural curiosities.” Washington’s startled look was answered by the cold stares of “a male and female ourang outang,” a species, so the reporter noted, “remarkable for its striking similitude to the human species.”
Washington (who was in the end to be given more pain by Freneau than by perhaps any other man) did not have time to meditate on what this strange sight portended, for his barge was now approaching the tip of Manhattan Island. He could see (as another observer noted) from the fort in the harbor to the place of landing and on into the city, “although near half a mile,” little else on board every vessel, along the shore, and jamming the streets but “Heads standing as thick as Ears of Corn before the Harvest.”
Handling their twenty-six oars flawlessly, the pilots brought the barge into a perfect landing on Murray’s Wharf at the foot of Wall Street. Here carpeted steps, flanked with railings upholstered in crimson, descended to the level of the deck. Washington mounted to be met by Governor Clinton and a pack of other dignitaries. Clinton’s words of welcome were made almost inaudible by ear-splitting huzzas.
The carpeting led to a carriage, but Washington announced that he would walk to the house which the new government had hurriedly procured for him on Cherry Street. It took him a half hour to traverse the half mile, since all the efforts of city officers and soldiers could not hold back the crowds that wished, screaming or tearful, to touch the tall gentleman in his cocked hat, blue suit, and buff breeches. “The General,” one spectator wrote, “was obliged to wipe his eyes several times before he got to Queen’s Street.”
As soon as he was indoors, Washington had to receive, despite his fatigue, a flood of dignitaries and former Revolutionary officers. There was no time to change his clothes before he was rushed off to a banquet given by Clinton. And then, although the evening was “very wet,” he had to move through the streets and admire the illuminations in the windows. There were still vast crowds and many cheers.
The journal Washington kept of his trip to New York has disappeared, but his biographer, John Marshall, the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, copied from it a comment on the finale of the journey that is, in its clumsy phrasing, revealing of Washington’s exhaustion as well as of his emotions:
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 were pleasing.