The New Congress and George Washington’s Inauguration

From the lecture series: America's Founding Fathers

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph. D., Gettysburg College

Word of his election was carried personally to George Washington’s doorstep at Mount Vernon by Charles Thomson on April 14, 1789. Washington left Mount Vernon on April 16, and at every stop between Alexandria and New York City, he was hailed with crowds, banners, bell-ringing, cannon salutes, topped off by a welcoming parade in New York City on April 23.

Lithograph depicting the inauguration of George Washington.
On April 30, 1789, George Washington took the presidential oath in Federal Hall, New York. (Image: Popular Graphic Arts/Public domain)

There was a performance of a Washington-ized version of the British national anthem in welcome parade, which went something like this, “Joy to our native land, / Let every heart expand, / For Washington’s at hand, / With glory crowned.”

Washington 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. And in delivering his truncated inaugural address, Washington, as Maclay described it, “trembled, and several times could scarce make out to read, though it must be supposed he had often read it before.”

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The 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 President and Vice-President”. John 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, proposed that Washington be addressed as “His Highness, or, if you will, His Most Benign Highness.”

Presidents, now that wasn’t a good term snorted Adams. Presidents only led “Fire Companies” or “a Cricket Club,” not “a great and independent Nation.” 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.” It took jockeying from James Madison for Congress finally to agree to address Washington simply as “President of the United States” and “Mr. President.”

Learn more about George Washington.

The Familiar Faces in the New Congress

The members of the new Congress were just as uncertain of themselves. The critical William Maclay found the New Yorkers “Pompous People” and the Southerners “intemperate”, and he soon bewailed his status as “a bird alone”. Even his fellow Pennsylvanians lacked “sociability”. According to the Constitution’s initial apportionment of representation, the House of Representatives was to be composed of 59 representatives, and, until North Carolina and Rhode Island ratified the Constitution and chose members of Congress, 22 senators.

There were a number of familiar faces here, eight members of the House of Representatives—including James Madison, Abraham Baldwin, Roger Sherman, the oldest member at 68, Elbridge Gerry, despite his refusal to sign the Constitution, Thomas Fitzsimmons, and George Clymer—had been at the Philadelphia convention the year before, and 12 of the senators likewise, most notably Robert Morris, Rufus King and William Paterson.

The New Faces in the New Congress

But there were also a number of new faces—not only new to Congress but also new to national political life.

There was William Maclay, who had been a surveyor, farmer, and member of the turbulent Pennsylvania assembly from western Pennsylvania. There was also the hot-tempered 31-year-old Georgian, James Jackson Judge Aedanus Burke, an Irish-born Catholic from South Carolina who had once studied for the priesthood.

A portrait of Fisher Ames.
Fisher Ames had secured a seat in the House of Representatives after beating Samuel Adams and 13 other candidates. (Image: Gilbert Stuart/Public domain)

Then there was Fisher Ames from Dedham, Massachusetts, who had graduated from Harvard at the unlikely age of 16, served in the revolutionary militia and the Massachusetts state ratifying convention, and had the distinction of beating Samuel Adams and 13 other candidates for his seat in the House of Representatives.

Fisher Ames: the Most Interesting of the New Congressmen

Shays’s Rebellion had startled Ames into political action in 1786, and he laid the blame for it squarely on the shoulders of the Articles of Confederation. “While the bands of union are so loose,” he complained, “we can expect nothing but more Shays-like outbreak, and in fact, we are no more entitled to the character of a nation than the hordes of vagabond traitors.” People readily compared Fisher Ames to Alexander Hamilton, and indeed Ames lauded Hamilton for his “integrity and honor.”

But Ames lauded George Washington even more. His view of Washington’s inaugural address was substantially more reverential than William Maclay’s. “Time,” Ames admitted, “has made havoc upon his face.” But that only increased “the awe which I brought with me.”

Learn more about the Confederation and Daniel Shays’s Rebellion.

What Happened to James Madison?

Denial of a Senate seat had deeply wounded James Madison, much as he struggled to conceal it. Fisher Ames drew a shrewd bead on Madison when he wrote that Madison was “a man of sense, reading, address, and integrity” who “speaks low” and “decently, as to manner, and no more. His language is very pure, perspicuous, and to the point.” But at the same time, Ames observed that Madison was “not a little of a Virginian, and thinks that state the land of promise,” and is, therefore “afraid of their state politics, and of his popularity there, more than I think he should be.”

Theodore Sedgwick, also from Massachusetts, drew the same conclusion about Madison, “No man, in my opinion, in this country has more fair and honorable intentions, or more ardently wishes the prosperity of the public,” and yet Madison “is constantly haunted with the ghost of Patrick Henry.” Nevertheless, as Cyrus Griffin, the outgoing president of the Confederation Congress, told Madison as he left, “we consider you as the main pillar of the business,” and to that business, Madison now turned.

Common Questions about the New Congress and George Washington’s Inauguration

Q: When and where did George Washington take the presidential oath?

George Washington took the presidential oath in Federal Hall, New York on April 30, 1789.

Q: Who blamed the Articles of Confederation for Shays’s Rebellion?

Fisher Ames laid the blame for Shays’s Rebellion squarely on the shoulders of the Articles of Confederation.

Q: What did John Adams propose at the time of George Washington’s inaugural?

John Adams proposed that George Washington be addressed as “His Highness, or, if you will, His Most Benign Highness.”

Q: Who gave the presidential oath to George Washington on April 30, 1789?

Robert Livingston, the New York chancellor, gave the presidential oath to George Washington on April 30, 1789.

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