The President’s Progress

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Although Washington arrived in New York on April 23, 1789, he was not inaugurated as President until April 30. The intervening week was a stormy one in Congress and in the drawing rooms and taverns where men discussed politics. The issues that so agitated their minds seem to modern eyes at first glance trivial, since they concerned etiquette and nomenclature. Washington would appear before Congress to take his oath. How should he be received so as to preserve a proper balance between the dignitaries of the Presidency and the legislature? John Adams was in anguish concerning where he, as presiding officer of the Senate, should meet Washington, and where each of them should sit.

An even more grievous issue was how the President should be addressed on formal occasions. A committee of the House of Representatives wished him to be called merely, as in the Constitution, “the President of the United States.” The Senate rebuffed the committee’s report. Although, as presiding officer, Adams was not supposed to get into the debates, he could not restrain himself. “What will the common people of foreign countries—what will the sailors and soldiers say” when asked to speak of “‘George Washington, President of the United States?’ They will despise him. This is all nonsense to the philosopher; but so is all government whatever.” Adams plumped for “His Most Benign Highness,” while a Senate committee voted for “His Highness the President of the United States of America and Protector of the Rights of the Same.”

Washington, who saw little but foolishness in John Adams’ point of view, was upset at this squabble which so soon endangered unity. The Comte de Moustier, the French minister, reported to his government that it was the fear of offending Washington that kept the Federalists from establishing titles, and Madison remembered Washington’s annoyance at the efforts “to bedizen him with a superb but spurious title.” It was, indeed, Washington’s friend Madison who led the continued resistance in the House that finally forced the Senate to topple the whole dream of aristocratic nomenclature by agreeing that the Chief Executive should be called simply “the President of the United States.”

Washington’s most immediate political problem was to make a final determination on his inaugural address. He decided (if he had not previously done so) to scrap the sixty-four-page speech on which he had spent so much labor. Instead, he perfected an address so short that, when read at the inaugural ceremony, it occupied less than twenty minutes.

To the constitutional provision that he recommend measures he judged “necessary and expedient,” Washington responded by outlining only the most general principles. The legislature should avoid “local prejudices and attachments,” “separate views,” “party animosities.” It should “watch over this great assemblage of communities and interests” with a “comprehensive and equal eye” and lay the foundations of policy “in the pure and immutable principles of private morality.” He went on to state what he had often himself exemplified in his role as Commander in Chief: “There exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage, between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity.”

His text went briefly into the matter of amending the Constitution: Congress would, he was sure, avoid any changes that would weaken the government or which “ought to await the future lessons of experience.” However, he endorsed the Bill of Rights, although not specifically by name, when he urged Congress to expedite amendments reflecting “a reverence for the characteristic rights of freemen, and a regard for the public harmony.”

For the rest, the speech Washington polished during his first week in New York was concerned with matters personal and religious. He wrote that he had accepted the call to the Presidency with reluctance. In insisting on his own inadequacy, he surely went beyond what he really felt when he added to his statement that he was “unpracticed in the duties of civil administration,” that he was conscious of “inheriting inferior endowments from nature.” Having from the start of his services to the nation renounced “every pecuniary compensation,” he wished to be exempted from whatever salary was established for the Presidency. He should merely be reimbursed for “such actual expenditures as the public good may be thought to require.”

The most remarkable aspect of what Washington wrote is the depth of its religious tone. In the past he had often expressed gratitude for the assistance of Providence to the American cause and had expressed hope that the boon would be continued. But never before had he devoted so much—more than a third—of a complicated pronouncement to religious considerations. That he was not just striking a popular attitude, as a politician might, is revealed by the absence of the usual Christian terms: he did not mention Christ or even use the word “God.” Following the phraseology of the philosophical Deism he professed, he referred to “the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men,” and to “the benign Parent of the Human Race.”