The President’s Progress

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In the speech he was preparing, Washington appealed for a celestial guidance which he undoubtedly felt the need of now more than ever before in his public career. As Commander in Chief, he had consulted and obeyed an earthly superior, the Continental Congress, to a point which his critics considered extreme. As President of the Constitutional Convention he had been, if the presiding officer, one of a team. But now, although Congress flanked him on one side and an as yet unestablished judiciary would flank him on the other, in the powerful duties that had been assigned to him he stood alone, with no superior to turn to but the heavens. No wonder he looked upward imploringly to “that Almighty Being … who presides in the Councils of Nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect.”

Fortunately the ceremonial aspects of Washington’s inauguration required of him few decisions, since they had, after long debate, been established by Congress.

The morning of April 30 came in fair. He was roused at dawn by thirteen cannon shots. After that, there were church bells and the moving about (with much staring) of crowds in front of his house; but, hour after hour, there was nothing to pull Washington from the meditations and memories that undoubtedly flowed through his mind.

With the approach of noon came the need for action. Washington donned the suit made from the brown Connecticut cloth he had purchased to encourage American manufactures and had brightened by adding silver buttons decorated with spread eagles. He pulled on white silk stockings, stepped into shoes with silver buckles, and made sure that his dress sword with its steel scabbard was ready.

Finally there were steps in his hallway. The delegation from Congress had arrived. Washington buckled on his sword, grasped his hat, went into the parlor, bowed, shook hands—and then he was sitting alone in a ponderous state coach that Congress had procured for the occasion. Manned by lackies he did not know, the unfamiliar coach moved slowly behind strange horses through a phantasmagoria of cheering faces. Bowing to the left and then to the right, Washington now and then looked behind him, for he could sometimes glimpse through the back window his own horses pulling the now somewhat battered coach from Mount Vernon in which he knew were his two old friends, his aides David Humphreys and Tobias Lear.

Bands appeared and shrank into the distance, militia companies wheeled and fired. Surely, as he rode in solitude amidst all the jubilation, Washington’s mind must have dwelt on contrasts. How, when the British and Hessians had invaded Manhattan, the militia and even the continentals had fled like ghosts, deaf to his shouts, avoiding his sword, until at last he turned in despair to defy the enemy as a solitary horseman, and would (had not his aides intervened) have been captured or killed. And then, so much sorrow and bloodshed later, with the city repossessed, how he had ridden through these very streets to see broken houses sag around him and to listen to the thin cheers of a few emaciated citizens.

Now the city blossomed and the well-fed citizens lived in peace. The eyes of the whole world, the hopes of all posterity were fixed, so to speak, on this occasion which, if its promise were properly improved, would demonstrate the ability of men to govern themselves.

The carriage stopped. Washington alighted and walked through ranks of militiamen into Federal Hall. Followed by dignitaries, he mounted a flight of stairs, passed through a door that was thrown open at his approach, and entered the Senate chamber. He bowed to the senators, to the envoys of foreign powers, and to the members of the House of Representatives. He saw ahead three windows, curtained in crimson damask, that opened onto a balcony. In front of the central window were a crimson canopy, a dais, three chairs, and John Adams looking nervous and constrained.

Adams stepped down, bowed to Washington, conducted him to the central chair, and then took his own seat on the right. Speaker of the House Frederick A. C. Muhlenberg slipped into the seat on the left. There was a moment of complete silence, and then Adams rose. He made as if to speak but was unable to do so. Finally, he said, “Sir, the Senate and House of Representatives are ready to attend you to take the oath required by the Constitution. It will be administered by the chancellor of the state of New York.”

“I am ready.”

Adams led the way through the central window onto a small portico that jutted out over the street at the second-story level. Washington saw in front of him an armchair and a small table draped in red and bearing a large Bible on a red cushion. Beyond the low railing —down the long, receding vistas of the streets, filling every window, on every rooftop—there reappeared the endless movement of cheering faces. Washington bowed and bowed again, with his hand on his heart, and then sat down on the chair. By now the portico was jammed with dignitaries.

Washington rose once more and approached the railing so as to be visible to as many of the onlookers as possible. A complete silence fell on the crowd. Chancellor Robert R. Livingston faced Washington, and between the two tall men Samuel A. Otis, Secretary of the Senate, a small man, held up the Bible on its crimson cushion. Washington put his right hand on the book. “Do you solemnly swear,” asked Livingston, “that you will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States and will, to the best of your ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States?”