It’s worth remembering on this most auspicious of days that the first U.S. presidential inauguration took place in New York City, the first capital of the United States. In February 1789, the newly formed electoral college unanimously selected George Washington to become the first President of the United States. (John Adams was elected vice-president because he had received the second highest number of votes.) The date for the inauguration was set for April 30.

Washington set out for New York from his home in Mount Vernon, Virginia, on April 16 and recorded this entry in his journal:

10 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
in company with Mr. Thompson, and Colonel Humphries, with the best
dispositions to render service to my country in obedience to its call,
but with less hope of answering its expectations.

It took Washington a week to get to New York City, and he was greeted by cheering crowds all along the way. On April 23, he arrived at Elizabeth Town, New Jersey, where he boarded a ceremonial barge that took him across the Hudson River to Manhattan.

gw_oath.jpgThe oath of office was administered to Washington by the Chancellor of New York, Robert R. Livinsgston, on the balcony of the Senate Chamber located in Federal Hall on
Wall Street. General Washington had been unanimously elected President
by the first electoral college, and John Adams was elected Vice
President because he received the second greatest number of votes. Both men were Freemasons, and the Bible used during the ceremony belonged to St. John’s Masonic Lodge in New York City. In The Life of George Washington (1855-59), Washington Irving wrote that the first president added the words “So help me God” at the conclusion of the oath, but historians are uncertain about the truth of that assertion. The only contemporary transcription of the oath, from the Documentary History of the First Federal Congress, doesn’t include the phrase. Neither the use of a Bible nor the invocation of God is required by law.

The site notes that “the nation’s first inauguration established many precedents: Washington
added the words, ‘So help me God’ at the end of his oath; he kissed the
Bible; and and he delivered an Inaugural address, all of which have
been followed by future Presidents.” The chart on the site devoted to the first inauguration also tells us that Washington wore a “dark brown suit (made in America), with steel-hilted sword, white silk stockings, and silver shoe buckles.”

The new President gave his inaugural address
before a joint session of the two Houses of Congress, which had inside
the Senate Chamber in Federal Hall. He began by registering his uncertainties about his new job:

Among the vicissitudes incident to life no event could have filled
me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was
transmitted by your order, and received on the 14th day of the present
month. On the one hand, I was summoned by my Country, whose voice I can
never hear but with veneration and love, from a retreat which I had
chosen with the fondest predilection, and, in my flattering hopes, with
an immutable decision, as the asylum of my declining years–a retreat
which was rendered every day more necessary as well as more dear to me
by the addition of habit to inclination, and of frequent interruptions
in my health to the gradual waste committed on it by time. On the other
hand, the magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of
my country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most
experienced of her citizens a distrustful scrutiny into his
qualifications, could not but overwhelm with despondence one who
(inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpracticed in the
duties of civil administration) ought to be peculiarly conscious of his
own deficiencies. In this conflict of emotions all I dare aver is that
it has been my faithful study to collect my duty from a just
appreciation of every circumstance by which it might be affected. All I
dare hope is that if, in executing this task, I have been too much
swayed by a grateful remembrance of former instances, or by an
affectionate sensibility to this transcendent proof of the confidence
of my fellow-citizens, and have thence too little consulted my
incapacity as well as disinclination for the weighty and untried cares
before me, my error will be palliated by the motives which mislead me,
and its consequences be judged by my country with some share of the
partiality in which they originated.

The second paragraph of the address pays homage to God, whom Washington invokes as “the Great
Author of every public and private good,” arguing that “no people can be bound to
acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of
men more than those of the United States.” Noting the “tranquil deliberations and voluntary consent of so many
distinct communities” that have resulted in the formation of the country’s new “system of their united
government,” Washington suggests that “every step by which they have
advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been
distinguished by some token of providential agency.”


You can read the full text of the address at The New York Times has an online feature that allows you to select an inaugural address, from Washington’s to George W. Bush’s second, and see which words are used most often and which words are particularly distinctive. The Library of Congress has a wonderful set of online documents related to presidential inaugurations, including a scan of the first inaugural address in Washington’s own hand. And you can read a more detailed account of Washington’s trip to New York and swearing-in at

Washington would deliver his second inaugural address in Philadelphia on March 4, 1793. John Adams would deliver his inaugural address there as well. The first inaugural address to be delivered in Washington, DC, was given by Thomas Jefferson, who had been instrumental in negotiating the site of the new capital.

All inaugurations were scheduled for March 4 until 1937, when the Twentieth Amendment changed the date and time to to noon on January 20. Franklin Delano Roosevelt began his second term on January 20, 1937.

The word used most often in Washington’s address, according to the Times, is “government.” The word used most often in Lincoln’s second inaugural is “war”; in George W. Bush’s second inaugural, it is “freedom.”

What word President Obama will use most often later today? Just for fun, I created word-frequency clouds for Obama’s Nominatinon Acceptance Speech (August 28, 2008) and his Victory Speech on November 4 in Chicago using Wordle. Click on the continuation link to see them.

The Nomination Acceptance Speech:


The Victory Speech in Chicago on November 4 (with the word “tonight” removed):