June 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 4
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”
Never was the election of a President so much a foregone conclusion and yet so tortuous in consummation. The Electoral College met on February 4, 1789, but its unanimous vote for Washington could not be official until the president of the Senate, temporarily elected for the purpose, opened the ballots in the presence of both houses. Congress was due to convene in New York on March 4. On the fifth, only eight senators and seventeen representatives —pitifully less than a quorum—had appeared.
As the most unpleasant season of the farming year moved slowly by, Washington waited at Mount Vernon in a frustration that was increased by the non-arrival of some promised grain seed, which prevented him from carrying out that year’s stage in his longrange plan for the rotation of crops. ”£500 would be no compensation,” he wrote, “for this disappointment.”
The continuing word was that legislators were dribbling into New York—now a senator, then a representative—but a quorum was still unachieved on March 30 when Knox notified Washington that the delay had already cost the new government the spring imposts, estimated at £300,000. Washington replied that he was sorry about the imposts but was more worried over “the stupor, or listlessness” being displayed by the men on whom the success of the Constitution would depend. The high-spirited anticipation he had so recently savored faded rapidly into such gloom that he wrote as darkly as he had ever written during the blackest hours of the Revolution:
My movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution: so unwilling am I, in the evening of a life nearly consumed in public cares, to quit a peaceful abode for an Ocean of difficulties, without that competency of political skill, abilities and inclination which is necessary to manage the helm.… Integrity and firmness is all I can promise; these, be the voyage long or short, never shall forsake me although I may be deserted by all men. For of the consolations which are to be derived from these (under any circumstances) the world cannot deprive me.
Washington was not cheered when lie faced up to the i’act that, H lie were not to leave debts behind him in Virginia, he would have “to do what I never expected to be reduced to the necessity of doing,” what, indeed, he regarded as the most disastrous of all steps for a farmer: borrowing money at interest. After he had finally steeled himself thus to raise more than a thousand pounds, he discovered to his dismay that his credit was not considered good enough. Businessmen were not willing to lend. Finally, he tried a personal connection, appealing to “the most monied man I was acquainted with.” But Charles Carroll of Carrollton also refused, explaining that he could not collect interest on the money he already had out on loan.
A wealthy inhabitant of Alexandria, Richard Conway, finally accommodated Washington to the extent of £500—at six per cent interest. The money in hand, Washington paid the most pressing of his debts and found there was nothing left. He had to beg from Conway another hundred pounds so that he could pay his expenses to New York and the Presidency.
The government of the United States being still unorganized, no way existed to supply a presidential residence. Governor George Clinton of New York, an old friend but a conspicuous Antifederalist, asked Washington to stay with him. Washington replied that it would be wrong “to impose such a burden on any private family”; he also put off Clinton’s request to be kept informed on when to expect Washington’s arrival. “No reception,” Washington explained, “can be so congenial to my feelings as a quiet entry devoid of ceremony.”
Applying to Madison, Washington wrote that if lodgings could not be hired which were “tolerably convenient (I am not very nice) I would take rooms in the most decent Tavern.” His mind surely running on his financial situation, he specified, “I am not desirous of being placed early in a situation for entertaining.” He was, however, eager “to conform to the public desire and expectation with respect to the style proper for the chief magistrate to live in,” and hoped that Madison would advise him concerning what the public wanted.
Washington made a quick trip to Fredericksburg to visit his eighty-two-year-old mother, who was now dying slowly and painfully of cancer of the breast. Then he returned to his waiting at Mount Vernon.
Martha made no secret of her bitterness at the impending destruction of her domestic life. She blamed fate, it is true, rather than her husband. She was willing to admit that he had to follow what his conscience told him was his duty. Washington did not push her any harder than was absolutely necessary. She would, of course, in the end have to apply her superlative social gifts to the role of First Lady; and Washington himself intended to set an example of promptness by starting out as quickly as possible after he had been notified that the government had certified his election. Martha, however, with Nelly and little Washington, could follow at their leisure.
On April 14, at about noon, Charles Thomson, who had been the secretary of the Continental Congress, stood at Mount Vernon’s door. After Washington had greeted his old friend, they walked together into the high-ceilinged banquet hall that was the most formal room available. The two men stood there, facing each other, in the quiet of a Virginia afternoon. Thomson made a little speech and then proffered a letter from John Langdon, president pro tempore of the Senate. Washington learned that he had been unanimously elected President of the United States: “Suffer me, Sir, to indulge the hope, that so auspicious a mark of public confidence will meet your approbation.”
Washington now read the brief contents of a paper he had prepared: “Whatever may have been my private feelings and sentiments,” he could not “give a greater evidence of my sensibility of the honor” done him by his “fellow-citizens … than by accepting the appointment.” He was conscious of his inability but would seek to do as much as could be “done by an honest zeal.” In order to keep no one waiting longer than was absolutely necessary, “I shall therefore be in readiness to set out the day after tomorrow.”
Concerning April 16, Washington wrote in his diary: About ten o’clock, I bade adieu to Mount Vernon, to private life, and to domestic felicity, and with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than 1 have words to express, set out for New York in company with Jr.. Thomson and Goio. Humphreys, with the best disposition to render service to my country in obedience to its calls, but with less hope of answering its expectations.
Since he believed that the future of the government depended tremendously on its acceptance by the people, Washington was much concerned about how his progress through the states to the capital would be received. But his first stop, Alexandria, was not so much a test for the future as a parting from the past.
His neighbors entertained him at a dinner studded with congratulatory toasts and affectionate speeches. He finally rose and made a brief acknowledgment, which ended:
All that now remains for me is to commit myself and you to the protection of that benilicent Being, who, on a former occasion lias happily brought us together, after a long and distressing separation. Perhaps the same gracious Providence will again indulge us with the same heartfelt felicity. But words, my fellow-citizens, fail me: Unutterable sensations must then be left to more expressive silence; while, from an aching heart, 1 bid you all, my affectionate friends and kind neighbours, farewell!
As Washington advanced beyond home ground, the explosion of enthusiastic strangers into his presence seemed all that the most ardent Federalist could have desired. There was a perpetual bowing and clanking beside his carriage. Delegations of local dignitaries awaited him at each town, and relays of horsemen, relieving each other every dozen miles or so, formed a continuous guard’ of honor. Washington could hardly sec the countryside, so thick were the clouds of dust thrown up by the many hooves. As an observer noticed, the dust settling on Washington’s clothes made it impossible to distinguish the true color of his coat or trousers.
In Baltimore, Washington was kept up late by an endless succession of toasts and speeches at a dinner. He was off at 5:30 the next morning, but that was not too early to be piped out of town by a roar of cannon and accompanied by another group of leading citizens on horseback. After seven miles, he alighted and managed to persuade this escort to go home. Then for two days, as he advanced through sparsely settled country, there were gaps in the chain of ceremony, and he could distinguish, in the smaller crowds that awaited him in towns, the emotional faces of soldiers he had last seen years before in bloody campaigns. But things warmed up again at Wilmington: another dinner, and horsemen who accompanied him to the Pennsylvania line where Pennsylvania horsemen were waiting, headed by the suavely smiling General Thomas Mifflin.
At Chester, some fifteen miles from Philadelphia, Washington alighted from his carriage and mounted a white horse. A parade of other horsemen gathered behind him. As lie advanced along the familiar road toward the Schuylkill River, he saw awaiting him at every crossroads a new detachment of riders. He would stop, the whole procession coming to a halt, for another round of ceremonial greetings. Then the newcomers fell in at the end of the ever lengthening line.
Finally there came into Washington’s view the pontoon bridge across the Schnylkill at Gray’s Ferry. It now resembled a grove of laurel and cedar growing out of the water. Green boughs hid all the woodwork, and, at either end, tall arches of laurel rose gaudy with banners and devices. Washington might have guessed (had he not been told) that this was the work of that indefatigably ingenious painter Charles Willson Peale. However, as he admired the effect, which according to one spectator “even the pencil of a Raphael could not delineate,” he could not guess all that Peale had in store for him.
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.
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.
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.”
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?”
“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.”
The President had prepared an acknowledgment of the Senate’s reply. Maclay noted that, when his turn came, he took the paper “out of his coat-pocket. He had his spectacles in his jacket pocket, having his hat in his left hand and the paper in his right. He had too many objects for his hands. He shifted his hat between his forearm and the left side of his breast. But taking the spectacles from the case embarrassed him. He got rid of this small distress by laying the spectacle-case on the chimney piece… . Having adjusted his spectacles, which was not very easy, considering the engagements on his hands, he read the reply with tolerable exactness and without much emotion.” Maclay commented that Washington should have received the Senate with his spectacles on, “which would have saved the making of some uncouth motions.”
Maclay’s gleeful mockery might well seem, as the first President of the United States grasped the wheel of state to almost universal cheering, a sour note so miniscule as not to be worth recording. Yet had Washington been conscious of what was happening in Maclay’s mind, he would have been alarmed. The enthusiasm that had accompanied his inauguration had not calmed the anxiety engendered during his triumphal progress from Mount Vernon to New York. “I fear,” he wrote an old Virginian associate, “if the issue of public measures should not corrispond with their [the public’s] sanguine expectations, they will turn die extravagent (and I may say undue) praises which they are heaping upon me at this moment, into equally extravagent (though I will fondly hope unmerited) censures. So much is expected, so many untoward circumstances may intervene, in such a new and critical situation, that I feel an insuperable diffidence in my own abilities. I feel … how much I shall stand in need of the countenance and aid of every friend of myself, of every friend to the Revolution, and of every lover of good Government. I thank you, my dear Sir, for your affectionate expressions on this point.”