On this day in 1789, George Washington is sworn in as the first American president and delivers the first inaugural speech at Federal Hall in New York City. Elements of the ceremony set tradition; presidential inaugurations have deviated little in the two centuries since Washington’s inauguration.
In front of 10,000 spectators, Washington appeared in a plain brown broadcloth suit holding a ceremonial army sword. At 6′ 3, Washington presented an impressive and solemn figure as he took the oath of office standing on the second balcony of Federal Hall. With Vice President John Adams standing beside him, Washington repeated the words prompted by Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, kissed the bible and then went to the Senate chamber to deliver his inaugural address.
Observers noted that Washington appeared as if he would have preferred facing cannon and musket fire to taking the political helm of the country. He fidgeted, with his hand in one pocket, and spoke in a low, sometimes inaudible voice while he reiterated the mixed emotions of anxiety and honor he felt in assuming the role of president. For the most part, his address consisted of generalities, but he directly addressed the need for a strong Constitution and Bill of Rights and frequently emphasized the public good. He told the House of Representatives that he declined to be paid beyond such actual expenditures as the public good may be thought to require. In deference to the power of Congress, Washington promised to give way to my entire confidence in your discernment and pursuit of the public good.
After delivering his address, Washington walked up Broadway with a group of legislators and local political leaders to pray at St. Paul’s Chapel. Later, he made the humble and astute observation that his presidency, and the nation itself, was an experiment.