On this day in 1789, 69 members of Congress cast their ballots to elect George Washington the first president of the United States.
As the former leader of the Continental Army and chairman of the Continental Congress, Washington possessed the necessary credentials for the presidency, if not the enthusiasm. After months of appearing to sidestep, and even outright rejecting the idea of assuming the presidency, Washington reluctantly accepted Congress’ decision. Runner-up John Adams became Washington’s vice president.
Washington’s reluctance stemmed in part from the fact that becoming president would place him squarely in the middle of a raging legislative debate regarding the character of the new government, a conflict that persisted to the end of his second term. Washington dreaded presiding over a fragile young nation that already appeared to be dividing along partisan lines. He also expressed concern over his advancing age. In his memoirs, he wrote that on the eve of his inauguration he felt more like a culprit who is going to the place of his execution than a national hero. His letters at the time reveal his trepidation and reluctant sense of duty. Nevertheless, he knew he had earned the nation’s trust and respect while leading the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War and that it was now relying on him once again.
Washington’s humility meshed well with the new nation’s democratic sensibilities. Fearing any comparison to the monarchal government from which American had just been liberated, an aging Washington took care to avoid any physical or symbolic references to European monarchs from the beginning of his term, including ordering his tailor to make his inauguration suit out of simple broadcloth. (Later on, as he settled in to the presidency, Washington took to wearing slightly more presidential black velvet.) When the Senate proposed that he be called by the official title His Highness the President of the United States of America and the Protector of Their Liberties, an embarrassed Washington opted for the more modest address of Mr. President.
The first Mr. President embarked on a week-long journey from his estate at Mount Vernon to his inauguration in New York without his wife, Martha, who chose to stay at home. During a presidency in which the role of the president was still evolving and under constant scrutiny, Washington periodically revealed his longing for a return to a more relaxed life at his beloved Mount Vernon and still managed to keep close tabs on the farm, sending detailed instructions for the estate’s maintenance.