Monday, April 30, 2007

April 30, 1789:

Washington Takes the Oath

The First Congress under the new US Constitution met in the nation's temporary capital, New York City, in March 1789. One of the first orders of business was to officially count the votes for president, and then determine how and where George Washington was to be inaugurated.

Traveling from Mt. Vernon in mid-April, Washington arrived in New York on April 23. The details of the ceremony were yet to be hammered out, so it wasn't until April 30 that he stood on a balcony at Federal Hall on Wall Street and took the oath administered by Chancellor Robert R. Livingstone, New York's highest-ranking judge. (There was no chief justice of the United States yet, or any Supreme Court.)

After taking the oath, Washington gave a short speech. Sen. William Maclay of Pennsylvania (pictured below) was there. His diary is a singularly important document from the time of the First Congress, recording as it does details of the debates on the Senate floor. Of Washington's oath-taking, he wrote:

"The President advanced between the Senate and Representatives, bowing to each. He was placed in the chair by the Vice-President; the Senate with their president on the right, the Speaker and the Representatives on his left. The Vice-President rose and addressed a short sentence to him. The import of it was that he should now take the oath of office as President. He seemed to have forgot half what he was to say, for he made a dead pause and stood for some time, to appearance, in a vacant mood. He finished with a formal bow, and the President was conducted out of the middle window into the gallery, and the oath was administered by the Chancellor. Notice that the business done was communicated to the crowd by proclamation, etc., who gave three cheers, and repeated it on the President bowing to them.

"As the company returned into the Senate chamber, the President took the, chair and the Senators and Representatives, their seats. He rose, and all arose also, and addressed them. This great man 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, though it must be supposed he had often read it before.

"He put part of the fingers of his left hand into the side of what I think the tailors call the faIl of the breeches, changing the paper into his left hand. After some time he then did the same with some of the fingers of his right hand.

"When he came to the words all the world, he made a flourish with his right hand, which left rather an ungainly impression. I sincerely, for my part, wished all set ceremony in the hands of the dancing-masters, and that this first of men had read off his address in the plainest manner, without ever taking his eyes from the paper, for I felt hurt that he was not first in everything.

"He was dressed in deep brown, with metal buttons, with an eagle on them, white stockings, a. bag, and sword."

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