I’ve always been fascinated by eyewitness accounts of historic events. I believe they give students a unique perspective and help spark the imagination. During my years collecting original colonial newspapers, I’ve been able to locate and purchase just one issue with an eyewitness account of the first inauguration of George Washington at Federal Hall in New York City. More on that rare item and links to a photo further below. During a recent trip to lower Manhattan, I stood in the exact spot where Washington took the oath of office and photographed the statue of him that appears in this post. That trip made me want to learn more about the inaugural ceremony and track down additional press coverage and eyewitness accounts. Here is a bit of what I discovered… On the morning of Thursday, April 30, 1789 at 9 am, bells in all the churches throughout New York City rang out for half an hour, calling together their congregations to offer prayers for the President-elect. At noon, the troops of the city paraded to the residence where George Washington was staying. At half past noon, with these troops in the lead, the procession moved forward toward Federal Hall followed by carriages containing the committee’s of Congress, the heads of departments and the President-elect in the state coach. Behind that were additional coaches, the foreign ministers and a long line of citizens. About two hundred yards from Federal Hall, the dignitaries stepped from their carriages and passed through the troops who had drawn up on either side of the street, making their way into the Hall and Senate Chamber where George Washington was greeted by Vice President John Adams (already sworn in on April 21), the Senate and House of Representatives. When Vice President Adams stated that all was ready, Washington passed through the middle door of the Hall onto the balcony, followed by the other dignitaries. He looked out on a sea of citizens, estimated by some at 10,000, and bowed in their direction.
By most accounts, on this day Washington wore a suit of dark brown cloth of American manufacture, trimmed with metal buttons with eagles on them, white silk stockings and shoes with plain silver buckles. He also wore a steel-hilted dress sword. Since there were no supreme court justices, the oath prescribed by the Constitution was administered by New York’s highest ranking judge, Chancellor of the State of New York Robert Livingston. Repeating after Chancellor Livingston, Washington said “I George Washington do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” It is unclear whether he then added the words “So help me God”. The excellent blog Boston 1775 has some interesting insight into this. After repeating this oath, Washington kissed the Bible and Chancellor Livingston called out “Long Live George Washington, President of the United States”. For additional details -the best eyewitness account of Washington’s first inauguration I was able to locate is that of Eliza Susan Morton Quincy as told in her book Memoir of the Life of Eliza S. M. Quincy. Elizabeth Susan Morton was born on September 20, 1773 in New York. In 1797, she married Josiah Quincy III, a Congressman, who later became the second mayor of Boston and president of Harvard College. Boston’s Quincy Market is named after him. At the time of Washington’s inauguration, Eliza was 15-years-old.
Recalling the historic event in her memoir, Eliza S. M. Quincy writes:
On the 30th of April, when Washington took the oath of office as President of the United States, the ceremony took place in the balcony of the old Federal Hall, as it was afterwards named, which stood in the centre of four streets. I was on the roof of the first house in Broad Street, which belonged to Captain Prince, the father of one of my school companions; and so near to Washington that I could almost hear him speak. The windows and roofs of the houses were crowded; and in the streets the throng was so dense, that it seemed as if one might literally walk on the heads of the people. The balcony of the hall was in full view of this assembled multitude. In the centre of it was placed a table, with a rich covering of red velvet; and upon this, on a crimson velvet cushion, lay a large and elegant Bible. This was all the paraphernalia for the august scene. All eyes were fixed upon the balcony; where, at the appointed hour, Washington entered, accompanied by the Chancellor of the State of New York, who was to administer the oath; by John Adams, the Vice-President; Governor Clinton; and many other distinguished men.
By the great body of the people, he had probably never been seen, except as a military hero. The first in war was now to be the first in peace. His entrance on the balcony was announced by universal shouts of joy and welcome. His appearance was most solemn and dignified. Advancing to the front of the balcony, he laid his hand on his heart, bowed several times, and then retired to an arm-chair near the table. The populace appeared to understand that the scene had overcome him, and were at once hushed in profound silence. After a few moments, Washington arose, and came forward. Chancellor Livingston read the oath according to the form prescribed by the Constitution; and Washington repeated it, resting his hand upon the Bible. Mr. Otis, the Secretary of the Senate, then took the Bible to raise it to the lips of Washington; who stooped, and kissed the book. At this moment, a signal was given, by raising a flag upon the cupola of the Hall, for a general discharge of the artillery of the Battery. All the bells in the city rang out a peal of joy, and the assembled multitude sent forth a universal shout. The President again bowed to the people, and then retired from a scene such as the proudest monarch never enjoyed. Many entertainments were given, both public and private; and the city was illuminated in the evening.
The newspaper in my collection that I mentioned at the top of this post is the May 23, 1789 issue of the Massachusetts Centinel. The Boston newspaper contains this original article – an extract of a letter from New York – with an eyewitness account of the inauguration. The article which touches on the emotional impact of the event concludes with these words “… when the Chancellor pronounced, in a very feeling manner, “Long Live George Washington,” my sensibility was wound up to such a pitch, that I could do no more than wave my hat with the rest, without the power of joining in the repeated acclamations which rent the air.” Additional press coverage of the inauguration of George Washington can also be found in the July 16, 1789 issue of the London Chronicle. This original article in the Chronicle is quite special as it also mentions the President’s visit to St. Paul’s Chapel after his inaugural address.
The recent HBO miniseries John Adams included a great scene showing Washington’s inauguration. The video below, from the New York Historical Society, discusses the chair that Washington used during that inauguration. I’ve also included 2 additional video links: the first shows a portion of the railing from Federal Hall and the second is a clip of a fascinating episode in The History Channel’s Save our History series called The Search for George Washington. You can purchase the DVD here. The full DVD reveals the process used to determine precisely what George Washington looked like at the ages of 19, 45 and 57 (the age he was during his inauguration in 1789).
Video link: Washington’s Inaugural Chair (embedded above)
Video link: Federal Hall Railing (1789 Inauguration)
I’d like to make teachers aware of an outstanding online resource for information on New England just before, during, and after the Revolutionary War – the Boston 1775 blog. The blog is authored by J.L. Bell, a Massachusetts writer who specializes in the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. J.L. has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. His recent presentation “Gossiping about the Gores”, the story of one family from Colonial Boston, is archived by the WGBH Forum Network.
J.L. Bell is more than a writer who is passionate about history; he’s also a bit of a detective. Since 2006, the content on Boston 1775 has grown to over 1,300 posts, with many being the result of his exhaustive research into primary sources. Educators and all those passionate about history can truly spend hours on this blog learning information that will make them think about historical events in a different way. You’ll find numerous posts on Lexington and Concord, the Boston Massacre, Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill and so much more.
Two posts I found particularly fascinating were on the myths and realities of the Quartering Act. Back in grade school I was taught that the Quartering Act forced Boston families to provide food and shelter for the King’s troops occupying the town. I had pictured colonists being required to open up their homes to soldiers without any payment in return or say in the matter. By reading posts at Boston 1775, I realized this was not the case. The Act only referred to shelter in “unoccupied” buildings and not inhabited ones.
Some Boston families did house British soldiers in their homes before the war but most did so due to economic necessity and were compensated for it in the form of rent. One example of this is the family of Old North Church sexton Robert Newman. Knowledge of the true nature of the Quartering Act came too late for me to catch a small Act related error on page 31 of my children’s book One April in Boston – but I guess that’s what second editions are for! It’s an example of what one can gain from reading Boston 1775, and ensures that today I’m conveying the correct information to the students I work with both on field trips and in the classroom. Thanks J.L. for all the time and effort you’ve invested in creating this important resource for educators and history buffs alike.