By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
On January 20, Joe Biden will become the 46th president of the United States. The presidential inauguration dates back to the dawn of the country. What was Washington’s inauguration like?
On Wednesday, January 20, 2021, the United States will repeat a time-honored tradition involving the peaceful transition of power from one president to another as President-elect Joe Biden will take the oath of office as the 46th president of the United States. In U.S. history, the presidential inauguration has been a cause for celebration and the continuation of democracy. The first swearing-in ceremony at a presidential inauguration was held for former General George Washington on April 30, 1789.
A One-of-a-Kind Ceremony
After a joint congressional committee traveled with him by barge, across the Newark Bay and up the New York Bay, President-elect George Washington was welcomed by a parade in New York City on April 23, a week before his inauguration.
“He took the presidential oath from New York chancellor Robert Livingston on the second-floor balcony of Federal Hall on April 30, and to the skeptical eye of one newly minted Pennsylvania senator, William Maclay, the 57-year-old general looked as though he would have been more comfortable leading a charge against the British than enduring the inaugural ceremony,” said Dr. Allen C. Guelzo, the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and Director of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Dr. Guelzo quoted Senator Maclay as calling Washington “agitated and embarrassed” by the ceremony, alternately passing the paper on which his inaugural address was written from one hand to the other. Some of his uneasiness might have stemmed from the fact that this was the nation’s first-ever inauguration.
“No one, of course, had ever been inaugurated as president of the United States; and so, there was some buzzing in the Senate about ‘the ceremonial proper to be observed on the reception of the president’ and ‘what titles shall be annexed to the offices of the president and vice president,'” Dr. Guelzo said.
What’s in a Name?
Furthermore, John Adams, who took his oath of office six days earlier as Washington’s vice president, had a particular taste for the reverence and respect that a title would bestow upon President Washington. He argued the protocol issues of what would become the titles used for the two political positions.
“Adams, whose interest in pomp and circumstance was by some people uncharitably attributed to his four years as the first American minister to Great Britain, believed that ‘neither Dignity nor Authority can be Supported in human Minds without a Splendour and majesty, in Some degree, proportioned to them,’ and Adams seriously proposed that Washington be addressed as ‘His Highness, or, if you will, His Most Benign Highness,'” Dr. Guelzo said.
Ever tied to pomposity, Adams saw little grandiosity in the title “President.” Trivial as it seems today, the debate over how to address the president of the United States sparked much argument at the time.
“Others suggested addressing Washington as ‘Excellency’ or ‘Elective Highness’ and even ‘His Highness the President of the United States of America and Protector of the Rights of the Same,'” Dr. Guelzo said. “It took jockeying from James Madison for Congress finally to agree to address Washington simply as ‘President of the United States’ and ‘Mr. President.'”
The matter settled, the new government was able to move on to more pressing issues of the day. And in 2021, with the coronavirus pandemic and the recent siege of the Capitol weighing heavily on the minds of Americans, the inauguration day of President-elect Joe Biden may also find itself merely a prologue to graver matters that need immediate attention.
Dr. Allen C. Guelzo contributed to this article. Dr. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and Director of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He holds an MA and a PhD in History from the University of Pennsylvania.