On October 15, 1789 President George Washington left New York for a tour of the eastern states. During this trip he visited a number of towns in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire including: New Haven, Hartford, Worcester, Boston, Salem, Newburyport and Portsmouth. President Washington’s visit to Boston began on Saturday, October 24, 1789. On that unusually cold, raw and windy day, at 10 o’clock in the morning, the inhabitants of the town assembled and formed a Procession in the Mall (near Boston Common). The artisans, tradesmen, and manufacturers were alphabetically arranged. Each group stood behind white silk flags of a yard square that flew from handsomely painted seven-foot long staffs. Each flag contained a device noting the group’s trade. My ancestor, 55-year-old cabinetmaker Alexander Edwards, likely marched behind the flag of the Cabinet and Chair-Makers while my fourth great grandfather, 24-year-old Benjamin Edwards, either marched with the coopers or was among the spectators that day. The procession made its way to the entrance of the town where the entire group halted and opened ranks. Facing inwards, they formed an avenue reaching from the neck to the State House for the President to pass through. At one o’clock, the President’s approach was announced by discharges of artillery from Roxbury, Dorchester Heights, and Castle William; a salute from the ships, and by the ringing of all the bells. President Washington was dressed for the occasion in his Continental uniform and mounted on an elegant white horse. He was attended by Major Jackson, and Mr. Lear, his Secretaries. Vice President John Adams followed on horseback. Governor John Hancock did not greet the President as he entered Boston, feeling that Washington should call on him first as Head of the Commonwealth. The Governor eventually saw the error of his ways and made an effort to smooth things over – more on that below. The Selectmen, and the Lieutenant Governor Samuel Adams, did welcome the President and he was escorted into town followed by the Procession.
The streets were crowded with finely dressed ladies and gentlemen and many of the townspeople peered out doors, through casement windows, and from the tops of buildings along the parade route to catch a glimpse of the legendary General Washington. The nation’s first president rode along Orange, Newbury, Marlborough, and Cornhill streets (all later named Washington Street in honor of his visit). On this path, President Washington went by the Old South Meeting House – a spot he had visited in 1776 to see the destruction done to the building by the British troops when they occupied Boston. Reaching the State House (today’s Old State House), the President passed through a richly decorated Triumphal Arch, designed by architect Charles Bulfinch, which spanned from the west end of the building to the stores on the opposite side of the street. This arch had a canopy above it over 20 feet high with an eagle perched on top. The President then entered the State House, went upstairs, strode through the Representatives’ Chamber, walked out the center window and took four steps down to the gallery of the Colonnade – a colonial reviewing stand of sorts erected for the occasion at the west end of the State House. This reviewing stand stood atop six large columns, fifteen feet high, and the floor of its gallery was furnished with armed chairs and spread with rich carpets. When President Washington entered the Colonnade, he was saluted by three huzzas from the citizens, and an Ode was sung. The Procession passed him, proceeded into Court Street and was dismissed. Military companies then escorted the President to his residence in Court Street, Ingersoll’s Inn, where he would stay during his five day visit. That evening, fireworks were exhibited in several parts of the town – in State Street, the Bunch of Grapes Tavern, Eastern Coffee House, the Castle and from the French Ships, which were beautifully illuminated.
On Sunday the 25th, the President attended services in the morning at Trinity Church and in the afternoon at Brattle Street Church. In between, he was called on at his residence by Governor Hancock. The Governor, who overnight had come to realize the incorrectness of his views and that it was in fact his responsibility to call on the President first, arrived by coach and was carried in by his coachmen and footman apologizing that gout had prevented him from seeing the President any earlier. Washington seemed to accept the excuse and apology in stride and the two had a cordial meeting. Monday the 26th was rainy and stormy and the President, who had begun to show signs of a cold, (no doubt the effect of being out in the frigid temperatures and wind the day he entered the town) cancelled a planned trip to Lexington. In fact, a large number of the inhabitants of Boston had also taken ill with what everyone would come to call the Washington Influenza. Washington received many visitors this day and in the evening called on the Governor and had tea with him and Mrs. Hancock. On Tuesday the 27th he went to an Oratorio at the Stone Chapel (King’s Chapel) and attended a large and elegant dinner in his honor that afternoon at Faneuil Hall. On Wednesday the 28th President Washington visited a Duck (sailcloth) Manufactory where he saw 28 looms at work with 14 girls spinning. He also toured a Card Manufactory. He visited ships in Boston Harbor and attended a grand ball in the evening at Concert Hall. The President departed the town the next morning, Thursday October 29th at 8 o’clock.
Any stories about President Washington’s visit to Boston that may have been passed down by my ancestors did not survive. In an effort to better appreciate what they might have experienced, I decided to seek out eyewitness accounts of this historic event. One of the best accounts I was able to find is that of William H. Sumner (1780-1861) the son of Increase Sumner, fifth governor of Massachusetts. William H.Sumner, who served as a General in the Massachusetts Militia, was nearly 80 when his childhood recollections appeared in the April 1860 issue of the New England Historical and Genealogical Register. This is a publication of Boston’s New England Historic Genealogical Society – a wonderful resource I used to research my own family history and can highly recommend to others. In the article, William H. Sumner notes that he is one of the very few now living who can say, “I have seen the great Washington.” Sumner was a boy between the ages of 9 and 10 years old, and a student at Master Lane’s West Boston Writing School when President Washington entered Boston on Saturday, October 24, 1789. Recalling that day, Sumner writes:
The children of the schools were all paraded in the main street, and stood in the gutters in front of the long rows of men whose strength was required and exerted to protect them from the crowd on the sidewalks as the procession passed along the street. The General rode on a noble white charger with characteristic erectness and dignity. Colonel Lear and Major Jackson accompanied him as his aids. Washington was in uniform, and as he rode, his head uncovered, he inclined his body first on one side and then on the other, without distinctly bowing, but so as to observe the multitude in the streets, and the ladies in the windows and on the tops of houses, who saluted him as he passed.
Master Lane’s boys were placed in front of Mr. Jonathan Mason’s hardware store, near the bend in Washington Street (then Cornhill) opposite Williams Court. I will remember the laugh which our salute created, when, as the General passed us, we rolled in our hands our quills with the longest feathers we could get. Mr. N.R. Sturgis, who was at school with me at that time, remembers this circumstance. From our position at the angle of the street, we had a fair view of the procession as it approached and after it passed us. A select choir of singers, led by Rhea, the chorister of Brattle Street Church, was placed on the triumphal arch under which the procession was to pass, and which extended from the Old State House to the stores of Joseph Pierce and others on the opposite side of Cornhill. The arch was decorated with flags, flowers and evergreen, so that the musicians were not seen until they rose up and sang the loud paean, commencing as Washington first came in sight at the angle where we stood, swelling in heavy chorus until he passed from our sight under the triumphal arch and took his station upon it. Here the Selectmen of Boston gave him a formal reception.
William H. Sumner also mentioned something else that moved him during the President’s visit. He recalled how his mother was dressed to attend the Washington Ball at Concert Hall on the evening of Wednesday, October 28, 1789. He remembers her wearing a black velvet belt with the large gold letters “G. W.” on it. There were over 100 ladies at this event all dressed very fashionably. The November 11, 1789 issue of The Pennsylvania Journal mentions another item that the women of Boston wore during Washington’s visit. “The ladies, in honor of the President, have agreed to wear the following device is a sash: A broad white ribbon with G.W. in gold letters (or spangles) encircled with a laurel wreath in front; on one end of the sash to be painted and American eagle, and the other a fleur-de-lis.” These painted sashes also appeared for sale in an advertisement placed in The Massachusetts Centinel on the day of the Washington Ball.
Another eyewitness account of Washington’s visit by a schoolboy appears in the book John Tileston’s School by D.C. Colesworthy. The author’s father Daniel P. Colesworthy was a pupil of the legendary Boston schoolmaster John Tileston and he recalls how Master Tileston instructed the boys to come to school that day with clean faces and dressed in their best clothes. He also remembers rolling his quill pen in an effort to get General Washington’s attention. I continue to search for more eyewitness accounts, especially those by children/schoolboys, and will add them to this post if and when they are located.
Original Press Coverage of President Washington’s Visit to Boston
The Massachusetts Centinel – October 28, 1789
Great for classroom use:
Complete Transcript of Press Coverage from The Massachusetts Centinel – October 28, 1789.
Historic Items from the Procession
Broadsides – Collection of The Massachusetts Historical Society
Banners – Collection of The Bostonian Society
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)