On this day in 1789, George Washington took the very first presidential oath of office. His inauguration on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City was the beginning of a grand experiment. Although the fledgling nation had been in existence since 1776, it had only an ad hoc government throughout most of the American Revolution, then switched to a very weak Articles of Confederation in the 1780s. At Washington’s inauguration, the new Constitution also was inaugurated. The question in everyone’s mind was whether it would or could work.
Ten thousand citizens were present to witness the first inaugural. Washington, at six-foot, three inches, looked every bit the part of a president. Of course, he already had won the confidence of Americans by his leadership during the war. They now looked to him to transfer his leadership from military matters to those of civil government. Everything he did would be seen as a precedent.
After he repeated the oath of office, Washington then kissed the Bible and went inside to deliver his inaugural address in the newly improvised Senate chamber. The address was short, but focused on the need for a strong Constitution, the addition of a Bill of Rights [which came along two years later], and how government was to be for the public good. As was his practice as general of the army in the war, he took no pay other than reimbursement for actual expenses.
At the end of his address, he and a number of the legislators and local politicians then walked to St. Paul’s Chapel to pray. He knew this new nation would need all the prayer it could get. It really was a grand experiment. Many thought it would fail. One of the reasons it did not can be traced directly to the wisdom George Washington brought to the presidency and to the precedents he set, not the least of which was to step down after serving two terms, thus laying to rest the fear that the presidency would evolve into just another kingship.
Excellent character in high office is a requisite for success in government. Washington set the bar high. We can’t say the same for all of his presidential successors, but we can, on this day, honor the good start he gave us. May we work now to preserve that heritage.