The President’s Progress

PrintPrintEmailEmail

“I solemnly swear,” said Washington, and repeated the oath. He bowed to kiss the Bible.

Livingston turned to the crowd. “It is done.” Then he shouted, “Long live George Washington, President of the United States!”

Taken up by the crowd, the cry rose thunderously. Echoing among the buildings, it reached Washington’s ear as an almost incoherent roar. From the harbor came the booming of cannon, the Spanish frigate again making the most noise. A faint, almost drowned-out tinkling was the massed voices of all the church bells. Washington bowed and bowed and then, when the sounds gave no indication of ceasing, he walked indoors and sat down in his chair.

It took some time before the dignitaries could get back into their seats and sink into quiet. Then Washington stood up with his speech in his hand. The audience also rose. His aspect, wrote a senator, was “grave, almost to sadness.” His simple words of modesty and faith, his few broad recommendations were delivered in so low a voice—”deep, a little tremulous” —that all had to lean forward to hear. “This great man,” wrote another senator, “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.”

As he proceeded, Washington moved his manuscript from his left hand to his right and put several fingers of his left hand into his breeches pocket. Soon he pulled out his left hand, again shifted the manuscript, and put his right hand into his pocket. Then he extracted his right hand and made with it what one witness considered “an ungainly impression.”

The famous orator Fisher Ames watched entranced at the effect of this simple delivery that so denied the importance of the elocutionist’s art: “It seemed to me,” Ames wrote later, “an allegory in which virtue was personified, and addressing those whom she would make her votaries. Her power over the heart was never greater.” The whole audience, even the man most passionately jealous of Washington—Vice President Adams—gave way to tears.

When Washington finished and sat down, he looked old and tired. “Time,” Ames noted, “has made havoc upon his face.” But his day’s duties were far from done. After much shaking of hands, Washington walked between walls of saluting militiamen to Saint Paul’s Chapel, where the Right Reverend Samuel Provoost, the Episcopal bishop of New York, strung out at length his petitions to the Almighty. However, there was no sermon, and Washington was allowed to have his dinner quietly at home. Then he was out again in his carriage to attend a pair of receptions and to see the illuminations and the fireworks. His horses moved more and more slowly as ever thicker crowds engulfed them. Finally he had to abandon his carriage and walk.

After the church service, while Washington was wooing rest in preparation for the evening’s festivities, the Senate had reconvened in the chamber where he had so recently moved all present to tears. A squabble instantly erupted, made the more heated, probably, by reaction to the previous emotion.

The object of the session was to prepare a reply to Washington’s speech: the angry issue, whether it should be referred to as his “most gracious speech.” That this was the wording traditionally used by Parliament in replying to addresses of the British king stirred up so many objections that the debate had to be continued the next day. Then it was decided to strike out the phrase lest the people consider the words “the first step of the ladder in the ascent to royalty.”

The successful campaign against that sinister adjective “gracious” had been led by the hypochondriacal, radical, and suspicious senator from western Pennsylvania, William Maclay. Some historians have considered Maclay, although his character was very different from Jefferson’s, a prophetic figure who took what was to be the Jeffersonian stand long before Jefferson himself had dreamed of leading an opposition.

In addition, because of a documentary freak, Maclay plays a major role in historical literature. Determined to protect its proceedings from the vulgar eye, the conservative Senate kept no detailed journal, thus in-advertently throwing the ball to its most radical member. Maclay filled the gap by jotting down from day to day a voluminous diary. Not only do his pages supply the only indications of what took place at many sessions, but, being in a perpetual rage of disapproval or indignation, he wrote in a spirited style that begs for quotation. The result has been to distort in an anti-Washington manner the record of the first year of the new government.

Maclay’s reactions to the Virginian combined awe, suspicion, and resentment. Before the inauguration, he wrote in his diary: “This day … General Washington, the greatest man in the world, paid me a visit.” Yet during the debate over titles, Maclay could not doubt that Washington had sparked the aristocratic agitation because of a lust to be addressed as “Your Majesty.”