It wasn’t the White House, because it didn’t yet exist. It was the Capitol building, because it didn’t yet exist, either. And it wasn’t even Washington, D.C. because, well, that property still belonged to the states of Maryland and Virginia. But when we think of a Presidential inauguration, all of those places are usually top of mind. In 1789, however, they were completely out of mind. So New York City provided the locale, and City Hall provided the venue for the very first Presidential inauguration.
George Washington was a very nervous man; probably way more nervous than when he had spoken his wedding vows. He had been unanimously nominated to lead a new country with a new charter and a completely new form of government. He had spent the winter talking about how he was unqualified to lead, even while the country believed, almost without exception, that he was the most capable man to do so. His wife, Martha, didn’t really look forward to being First Lady. In fact, in his biography of the First President, Ron Chernow writes that Mrs. Washington “talked about the presidency as an indescribable calamity that had befallen her.”
Regardless of feelings, there was no backing out now. Vice President Adams, in front of the First Congress, turned to the President-elect and said, “Sir, the Senate and the House of Representatives are ready to attend you to take the oath required by the constitution.”
Washington stepped out onto the balcony shortly after noon on April 30, 1789 to an immense roar and took the oath. Though not required, a committee thought it appropriate, at the eleventh hour, to have the President place his hand on a Bible. But where to find one? In the end, a local Masonic Lodge provided its Masonic Bible and Washington was administered the oath.
Then the President addressed the crowd. Again, this was not required by the Constitution, but it seemed right. Washington’s original speech, written by David Humphreys, spent too much time defending his decision to accept the Presidency. It spent too much time talking about his faith in the American people (not necessarily a bad thing). It spent too much time downplaying any form of dynasty (Washington was childless, after all). It delved too close (and again, at too great a length) to legislative matters for executive branch comfort. In fact, at seventy-three pages, it spent too much time on everything.
When Washington sent the speech to James Madison for his thoughts, he promptly tossed it out and wrote a much more succinct address that steered clear of legislative issues, which the President readily accepted and delivered.
Washington had become a household name in the Colonies during the French and Indian War. He had become the hero of the American Revolution. He had been a calming force (though he barely spoke) at the critical and sometimes contentious Constitutional Convention. And now he was the President, chosen by the people (by a wide margin) and the Electoral College (by unanimous consent).
Recommended Reading: Washington – A Life