April 30, 1789
Early on the morning of April 30, 1789, President-elect George Washington dressed himself with great attention to the symbolism of that important day. He put on a suit of brown American-spun broadcloth, white silk stockings, shoes with silver buckles, and a dress sword in a steel scabbard.
As he finished breakfast, he heard the church bells of New York City begin to ring out in celebration of his inauguration as the nation’s first president. Then he sat and waited for the coach that Congress had promised to send to carry him the several blocks to Federal Hall, the temporary capitol building. Hours passed. No coach. Finally, just after lunchtime, the clattering of horses’ hooves announced the arrival of an eight-member congressional escort committee. Washington greeted the four senators and four representatives and climbed into the stately carriage, which only he occupied. The festive convoy then set out with militiamen and senators leading the way.
Meanwhile, at Federal Hall, members of Congress crowded into the Senate chamber. A committee of both houses had selected that chamber for the ceremony, over the objection of some House members, because it provided easy access to an exterior balcony, where Washington would take his oath in easy view of thousands.
Vice President John Adams, who had taken his own oath of office nine days earlier, worried about protocol for this unprecedented event. Should he act as president of the Senate or vice president of the United States? Who knew?
Because someone had neglected to send out the presidential escort committee on time, the ceremony was already running an hour behind schedule. Finally, Washington arrived. After a fumbled greeting from Adams, the president-elect moved to the balcony overlooking Wall Street. Before an excited crowd, Washington took his oath and then returned to the Senate chamber to deliver his inaugural address.
Scrapping his original plan to offer a detailed list of legislation, the president asked only that members carefully consider various proposed amendments to the Constitution. He also requested that he not be paid a salary, just expenses. (Remembering his heavy personal expenses during the Revolutionary War, members ignored the request.) Otherwise, in a good-will gesture that he would never repeat, Washington urged members to pass whatever legislation they considered appropriate.
Following the address and a church service, the tired chief executive returned to his quarters to enjoy a peaceful dinner alone.