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Washington's Inauguration

April 27, 1789

George Washington

On April 27, 1789, confusion and frustration dominated the Senate's proceedings. President-elect George Washington would arrive at New York City's Federal Hall in three days to take his oath. The Senate was not prepared. Questions had to be answered. By what title should he be addressed? In which chamber would the ceremonies take place? Should members receive his address standing or seated? Where would the post-inaugural religious service be held?

Since its first meeting, three weeks earlier, the Senate had been deeply absorbed with matters of protocol and procedure. Behind many contentious debates lay the Senate's desire to ensure its equal—if not superior—status relative to the House of Representatives. For example, the Senate devised a plan for delivering messages between the two chambers. The Senate provided that its secretary would take legislation and other documents to the House. For traffic coming in the other direction, however, the Senate expected no fewer than two House members to carry legislation. For other messages, one member would be sufficient. The House greeted the Senate's proposal with laughter and sent its clerk. A similar response awaited a Senate plan to pay its members a dollar a day more than House members.

John Adams, who had taken his vice-presidential oath six days earlier, worried about the protocol of titles. Should the House Speaker be addressed as "Honorable?" The Senate voted no. What about the president? How about "His Highness the President of the United States of America and Protector of their Liberties?" A Senate majority thought that was fine. When the House later disagreed, a compromise produced the current simplified title. Should Adams act as President of the Senate or as Vice President of the United States? No one had an answer.

On April 30, as the Senate debated these issues, the House of Representatives filed into the Senate Chamber. Because someone had forgotten to send out the presidential escort committee, members waited another hour. Finally, President Washington arrived. After a fumbled greeting from Adams, the president-elect took his oath and delivered his address in a halting and nervous manner. Following the church service, senators returned to their chamber to plan a formal reply. Protocol issues continued to preoccupy the Senate throughout that First Congress—and beyond.

(Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart)