On April 30, 1789, George Washington climbed to the second-floor balcony of Federal Hall in New York City, then the nation’s capital, and bowed several times to the enthusiastic crowd below. For the occasion, he had powdered his hair and worn an American-made brown suit, along with white silk stockings, silver shoe buckles and a ceremonial sword sheathed at his hip. Placing his hand on a Bible provided by a Masonic lodge, Washington took the oath of office in which he swore to faithfully execute his duties and to uphold the newly enacted Constitution. He then headed inside to deliver his inaugural address to Congress. And with that, the United States had its first president.
After leading the American colonists to victory in the Revolutionary War, Washington resigned as commander in chief of the Continental Army and vowed never again to reenter politics. “I feel myself eased of a load of public care,” he wrote upon returning to his Virginia plantation in December 1783. “I hope to spend the remainder of my days in cultivating the affections of good men and in the practice of the domestic virtues.” Yet Washington soon began to despair over the weak state of the government under the Articles of Confederation, privately pronouncing that “something must be done, or the fabric must fall, for it is certainly tottering.” In 1787, following months of indecision, he was persuaded to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Unanimously chosen to lead the convention, he almost never voiced his opinion during the deliberations, instead serving as a kind of neutral arbiter. When the Constitution was finished, however, Washington lobbied for its passage, particularly in his home state of Virginia, where it was narrowly ratified in June 1788.
Once more, Washington’s thoughts turned to his plantation, even as common and prominent citizens alike entreated him to become the nation’s first president. “You alone can make this political machine operate successfully,” said the Marquis de Lafayette, a Frenchman who had served as a general in the Continental Army. Despite expressing reservations about everything from his advanced age to his supposed lack of qualifications, Washington eventually acquiesced. Reluctant to the end, he wrote that his “movements to the chair of government will be accompanied with feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.”
The 1789 presidential election was much different from anything in modern times. For one thing, three of the original 13 states did not participate. Rhode Island and North Carolina were left out because they had not yet ratified the Constitution, and New York proved too politically divided to select delegates to the Electoral College. Of the remaining 10 states, a few chose their delegates with a popular vote—open only to white men with property. In the others, either the legislature picked the delegates or a combination of methods was used. Although Washington did no campaigning of any sort, all 69 delegates voted for him. To this day, he remains the only president to win the Electoral College unanimously, a feat he repeated in 1792.
Upon learning of his victory in mid-April 1789, Washington journeyed from his Virginia plantation to New York City. He hoped to move quickly but found himself being treated like a monarch nearly everywhere. In Philadelphia, for example, a child placed a laurel crown on his head, after which he led a parade atop a white horse. Then, in Trenton, New Jersey, townspeople constructed a floral arch thanking him for the Revolutionary War battle he had won there. Flower girls tossed petals at his feet, and a chorus of women dressed in white sang him a welcoming ode. More festivities occurred in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, from where he took a presidential barge symbolically steered by 13 oarsmen across Upper New York Bay to Manhattan.
Having arrived at his destination, Washington holed up for a week while Congress ironed out the remaining details of his inauguration. Finally, around midday on April 30, he took a carriage through lower Manhattan surrounded by a contingent of troops, legislators, city officials, foreign dignitaries and local citizens. After traversing the last couple hundred yards to Federal Hall on foot, Washington bowed to both houses of Congress and then went up to the Senate Chamber’s outdoor balcony, where New York’s highest-ranking judge administered the oath of office. “Long live George Washington, president of the United States,” the judge cried out as thousands of spectators exploded into cheers.
Though not mandated by the Constitution, Washington next gave an inaugural address throughout which he reportedly fidgeted nervously. “This great man was agitated and embarrassed,” a senator said, “more than ever he was by the leveled cannon or pointed musket.” In the speech, Washington admitted to feeling anxious about his new job and even listed his deficiencies, such as being unpracticed “in the duties of civil administration.” Nevertheless, he declared himself honored to be summoned by his country, “whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love.” He spoke in generalities rather than delving into specific points of policy. And in a plea for unity among the states, he promised to be guided by “no local prejudices, or attachments; no separate views, nor party animosities.” The republican model of government, he continued, is an “experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”
The inauguration now over, Washington led a procession to a church prayer service prior to witnessing a fireworks display illuminate the night sky. Transparent images of him hung in many windows, lit up by candles and lamps, and so many people thronged into the streets to glimpse him that he had difficulty returning to the presidential home. Even at that moment of celebration, the so-called “Father of His Country” purportedly believed he would soon retire. But he ended up bowing to public pressure and serving two full terms, finally stepping aside in 1797.