It was on this day in 1789 that George Washington placed his hand on a bible in New York and became the first President of the United States under our Constitution – setting another of many traditions still in use today.
The first president of the Continental Congress in 1774 was Washington’s close friend and Thomas Jefferson’s cousin, Peyton Randolph. After Randolph, various members of the Continental Congress and the Confederation Congress acted as the presiding officer, or president, of these meetings.
But in the modern sense of the word, Washington was the first President vested with wide-ranging executive powers under the Constitution.
Washington traveled from his home in Virginia to attend a delayed inauguration, which was due to winter weather than pushed back the election process to early April. He was named President in a unanimous vote of the Electoral College.
His selection wasn’t a big surprise. It was well-known and desired for Washington to serve as first president under the Constitution, and many Founders really hadn’t thought beyond the institution of the presidency after Washington wasn’t able to serve at some point.
Washington had his doubts but realized he had a duty. He confided to a friend on April 1st:
“My movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution: so unwilling am I, in the evening of a life nearly consumed in public cares, to quit a peaceful abode for an Ocean of difficulties, without that competency of political skill, abilities and inclination which is necessary to manage the helm.”
As Washington started his journey to New York on April 16th, his mood had not changed as he recorded in his diary:
“About ten o’clock I bade adieu to Mount Vernon, to private life, and to domestic felicity; and with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express, set out for New York…with the best dispositions to render service to my country in obedience to its call, but with less hope of answering its expectations.”
When Washington arrived in New York City on April 30, 1789, there was much fanfare, and then a large crowd gathered in what turned out to be a parade.
As he arrived at Federal Hall, someone realized they forgot the Bible for the swearing in of the President and one was obtained from a nearby Masonic Lodge.
For the swearing-in ceremony, the Bible was opened to a random page in the haste, Genesis 49:13, which read, “Zebulun shall dwell at the shore of the sea; he shall become a haven for ships, and his border shall be at Sidon.”
Robert R. Livingston, the Chancellor of New York, administered the oath on a second floor balcony of Federal Hall in front of the crowd.
“I 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,” said Livingston. After repeating the oath, Washington kissed the Bible held for him by Livingston, who called out, “Long live George Washington, President of the United States,” as a salvo of 13 cannons was discharged to mark the event.
President Washington and the members of Congress then retired privately to the Senate Chamber, where Washington gave the first inaugural address to a joint session of Congress.
Washington talked about the shared responsibility of the President and Congress to preserve “the sacred fire of liberty” and a republican form of government.
He also reminded Congress about the “Great Constitutional Charter under which you are assembled,” saying that “that the foundations of our National policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality; and the pre-eminence of a free Government, be exemplified by all the attributes which can win the affections of its Citizens, and command the respect of the world.”
Washington and Congress then walked out Federal Hall, went through the crowds on Broadway, and attended a service at St. Paul's Church.
The first inaugural speech wasn’t required by the Constitution, but Washington’s decisions to make the remarks, and use a bible in the swearing-in ceremony, remain with us today.