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George Washington's Coronation

The day the House of Representatives achieved a quorum, on April 1, 1789, George Washington wrote to a friend:

“(I feel) that my movement to the chair of Government will be accompanied with 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 inclinations which is necessary to manage the helm.”

Thirteen days later, an envoy sent from Congress named Charles Thomson arrived on horseback at Mount Vernon to make it official: George Washington had been elected as the first president of the United States.

Two days later, on April 16, with Thomson and Washington’s aid and confidant David Humphreys as passengers, Washington boarded his coach and began the 250-mile trip north.  He wrote in his journal: “I bid adieu to Mount Vernon, to private life, and to domestic felicity, and with a mind oppressed with anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express, set out for New York. . . . With the best disposition to render service to my country in obedience to its call, but with less hope of answering its expectations.”

False modesty?  Perhaps not.  Washington knew how to guard his thoughts, but when he spoke his mind he did so candidly.  He had good reason to be modest.  He was coming to New York with the equivalent of an eighth-grade education and without the executive experience of having been a state governor or even a city mayor.

What he did have was eight year's experience as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, and a lifetime of reading documents and reports, many of them prepared by the brightest minds of his age.  Washington also had sense enough to know he didn’t have all the answers, that his success as president depended on the guidance of better-educated and better-informed men.  And he knew how to listen.  During the hot summer of 1787, he presided over the Constitution Convention in Philadelphia for four months and rarely spoke a word.

Washington was not embarrassed to say he didn’t have all the answers. He valued the opinions of others and, having heard everyone’s opinion, had the uncanny knack of choosing the right course of action.


If Washington was expecting a quiet trip he was in for a big disappointment.  Expecting complete anonymity was probably asking too much, but a trip without attracting too much attention seemed reasonable.  He wasn’t taking his luxurious four-door coach--the stretch limo of its day--the one a grateful Congress had given to him after the war.  Too showy.  No, he was taking his smaller, less conspicuous, two-door coach. It didn’t help that every newspaper along the route had published his travel itinerary, and so at every city, town and wide spot in the road a crowd would be waiting for him.  The trip was destined to be something of a parade, with Washington as grand marshal.

The first stop was Alexandria, where friends and civic leaders at Wise’s Tavern would not let him pass without dinner and a speech.  Washington wasn’t big on speaking extemporaneously.  Judging by the account that was recorded, he did quite well.  With words that echoed Abraham Lincoln’s farewell speech to his neighbors 70 years in the future, Washington said: “Words, my fellow citizens, fail me.  Unutterable sensations must then be left to more expressive silence: while, from an aching heart, I bid you all, my affectionate friends and kind neighbors, farewell.”

The next stop was Spurrier’s Tavern outside Baltimore, where Washington spent the first night.  In the morning it was on to Baltimore proper where he was welcomed with an artillery salute and a lavish dinner at the Fountain Inn.  The ceremony and speeches took the better part of the afternoon, so Washington stayed the night.

The next two days he made good time traveling through the sparsely-populated countryside between Baltimore and Wilmington, Delaware.  On the morning of April 20, a crowd welcomed him to Wilmington with speeches and fanfare and then escorted him to the Pennsylvania border.  Fifteen miles outside of Philadelphia, Washington left his carriage, mounted a white horse and led the Pennsylvania state militia to the Schuylkill River.

The pontoon bridge over the Schuylkill was decked in laurel and cedar bush while the arches at either end were draped with laurel rose.  Riding under the first arch a young girl peered out from the brush, pulled a lever and from atop the arch a laurel wreath dropped onto Washington’s head.  This was too much, apparently.  Washington immediately brushed off the wreath, thought better of his rashness, stopped, dismounted his horse, and gave the girl a gentle kiss.

Entering Philadelphia Washington bowed repeatedly before cheering crowds.  Cannons fired in the distance and church bells rang throughout the city.  He rode down Market and Second Streets to City Tavern where yet another lavish meal awaited him.  It was another long, drawn out affair with speeches and numerous toasts.  Ever gracious, the General stayed to the very end.

Rain threatened throughout the morning of April 21. Sitting through yet another round of speeches, Washington sent word that he did not want the militia to accompany him to Trenton as planned, due to the weather.  The militia intended to accompany him anyway.  The General surprised them.  He departed earlier than expected and took a different route.

Thirty-five miles on, Washington crossed the Delaware by ferry.  Greeting him on the Jersey side was another welcoming committee and a band playing martial tunes.  Washington mounted another white horse and led a procession through Trenton and down to the bridge over the Assunpink Creek.  It was here, a focal point of the Battle of Trenton, that many had died on both sides, to the point where the bridge had been completely covered in blood.

On this day, the bridge was covered in evergreens, and a group of women and their daughters dressed in white robes awaited him.  A sign posted on the bridge displayed two dates: December 26, 1776--January 2, 1777.  During those eight days the tenor of the war changed, from one of gloom to one of hope.  An inscription read: “The defender of the mothers will be the protector of the daughters.”  Washington dismounted his horse. Thirteen ladies bearing baskets of flowers broke into song:

"Virgins fair and matrons grave,

Those thy conquering arms did save,

Build for thee triumphant bowers,

Strew, ye fair, his way with flowers,

Strew your hero’s way with flowers."

The ladies then flung their flowers onto the bridge, and the General crossed over to the other side.

The following morning, Washington was off at sunrise.  At Princeton, he received a formal address at the college and gave a brief acknowledgement.  At Brunswick, volunteer infantry and artillery with a detachment of cavalry formed a line past which the General rode.  More bands and speeches, and on to Westbrook, where he spent his last night before reaching New York.

Awakening the morning of April 23, Washington surely felt exhausted.  Since leaving Mount Vernon, he had spent nearly all of his waking hours either bouncing around inside his coach or sitting through endless speeches, and making brief replies to every one of them; eating countless rich, heavy meals and drinking who-knows-how-many glasses of wine and spirits; and nearly every day being confronted by crowds of cheering and groping strangers.  This was not the genteel society--the rich and well-to-do--he greeted regularly at Mount Vernon.  Oh, no.  This was the hurly-burly of the masses, the common folk; this wasn’t the present state of politics; this was its future.  This was democracy as it would be in the Age of Jackson.  Surely, for a man who liked to keep his distance, there must have been moments when the sheer tedium of it all seemed more than Washington could bear.  And it wasn’t over yet.

Elizabeth Town was the last stop on the long road to New York.  Washington arrived a little before 9 a.m. and was given yet another white horse to ride at the head of yet another procession through another town.  He breakfasted at the Red Lion Inn with a number of city and state leaders, and with the two Senators and five Representatives who would accompany him across the bay to Manhattan.

It’s fifteen miles from Elizabeth Town Point across Upper New York Harbor to Murray’s Wharf, at the foot of Wall Street.  Ferry service was an everyday fact of life for commuters to-and-from Manhattan, as it is for many commuters today.  Up to this point, Washington had crossed a half-dozen or so wide rivers, using public transportation.  Not today. The barge awaiting him was custom-built for the occasion, decked out in patriotic red-white-and-blue colors.  Thirteen oars on either side were pulled by a seasoned staff of New York Harbor pilots.  Washington stepped aboard and, with the sun shining upon him, waved his hat to the cheering crowd on the Jersey shore.

With oars rowing in unison, the barge passed purposely through the Kill Van Kull tidal straight and entered the open waters of Upper New York Bay, where a fleet of small craft awaited him.  They fell in behind the presidential barge and followed it across the Bay.  In the distance, a skyline of church steeples flanked by tall ships loomed in the distance--Manhattan.  From the ramparts of the Battery, cannons boomed with flame and smoke, firing off a thirteen-gun salute.

The barge swung past the Battery and moved up the East River, greeted by a second thirteen-gun salute, from the Spanish galleon “Galveston” anchored in the bay. This was followed by a third thirteen-gun salute, from an American vessel anchored nearby, the “North Carolina.”  From the Battery up to Paulus Hook, New Yorkers stood two-and-three deep to watch the arrival of the president-elect.

Once the barge neared the wharf, longshoremen threw out ropes and leapt aboard to tie up the vessel.  Washington waited as steps were set up and a red carpet rolled out.  He stepped onto the wharf and was greeted by his old friend, and now governor of New York, George Clinton.  Clinton spoke briefly.  A carriage waited, but Washington declined; he would walk the rest of the way.

The Palace Mansion at 1 Cherry Street allowed the president-elect time for himself.  A servant helped him freshen up with a cup of hot tea and a change of shirts, then the General was off again.  A carriage took him to Governor Clinton’s elegant townhouse on Queen Street where he was the guest of honor at dinner.  Afterward, the two watched a fireworks display at the Battery.

Later that evening, Washington returned to the Palace on foot.  Oil-burning street lamps shown at every corner, and in the windows of every house candles flickered in his honor.  An “ocean of difficulties” lay ahead, but tonight Manhattan was celebrating his arrival.


April 30, 1789 was Inauguration Day.

Governor Clinton sent the state carriage around to pick up the president-elect.  It was a regal-looking rig, drawn by six white horses, with four uniformed footmen, a driver, and a postillion riding the lead horse.  Had it not been the familiar and trusted George Washington, people along the parade route might have assumed the man seated inside was a king on to his way to his coronation.

Washington was a clothes-horse who favored military attire and suits made in England, but on this day he was wearing a simple brown suit, made of fabric produced in a New England textile mill.

The carriage delivered Washington to the steps of Federal Hall.  Entering the Senate Chamber on the second floor the president-elect was greeted by vice-president John Adams.  Adams bowed deeply, and said:  “Sir, the Senate and the House of Representatives are ready to attend you to take the oath required by the Constitution.  It will be administered by the Chancellor of the State of New York.”  Adams then escorted the president-elect onto the balcony above Wall Street, before an estimated 10,000 citizens standing in the street below.

A Bible placed on a red cushion was used to swear in the President, the very Bible that is used to swear-in presidents to this day.  Chancellor Robert Livingston addressed the General: “Do you solemnly swear that you will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will, to the best of your ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States?”

“I solemnly swear,” Washington said, and repeated the oath.

Chancellor Livingston turned to the crowd, with great gravity he said:  “It is done.  Long live George Washington, President of the United States.”

The crowd cheered.  A signal was somehow relayed to the Spanish Galleon anchored in the bay which responded with a booming thirteen gun salute.  When all was quiet again, Washington, visibly nervous, removed some papers and began reading his speech.  “The great man was agitated and embarrassed more than ever by the leveled cannon or pointed musket,” one Senator reported later.  “He trembled, and several times could scarce make out to read.”

The address, which James Madison had written for him, was short.  For the most part, the speech consisted of generalities and emphasized the public good.  Unlike an earlier, longer draft that Washington had written that was more a to-do list for Congress than a speech, Madison’s revised version made only one request of Congress: that it draft a bill of rights.

Afterward, the President joined Congressmen and local politicians at Saint Paul’s Chapel on Broadway for prayer and a short sermon by Bishop Provoost.  That afternoon, the President attended two receptions held in his honor, followed by another fireworks display at the Battery.

Washington told friends that day the new government was an experiment. They had no way of knowing the success or failure of that experiment very soon would depend on the state of Washington’s health.


Before the year was over, Washington would suffer an illness that threatened his life, as well as the life of the new government.   In the second year of his presidency, Washington would suffer yet another life-threatening illness that would shake the very core of the U.S. government.

That said, for most of his eight-year presidency Washington would enjoy remarkably good health, so much so, that he would travel to all thirteen states of the Union, to learn what U.S. citizens thought of the new government.  What he discovered was that the nation was solidly behind America's fledgling democracy.  At the same time the Washington Administration was able to finish the work left undone at the Constitutional Convention, by amending the U.S. Constitution with a Bill of Rights, creating a federal revenue stream to pay the nation's bills, and creating the Departments of State, Treasury, and Defense.  Also created was the federal judiciary system (including the Supreme Court), and making provision for paying off the Nation's crushing war debt. Also created was a national bank to manage the nation's money supply (forerunner of today's Federal Reserve).  If this wasn't enough, legislation was passed to relocate the nation's capital from New York City to what would become its permanent home on the banks of the Potomac River -- Washington, D.C.   Finally, the new government would add two more states to the Union (Maine and Kentucky).

In fact, under Washington's Administration, the U.S. Congress was more productive than it would ever be again.  Most importantly, perhaps, Washington was keenly aware that his every action would set a precedent for future presidents to follow.  At a time of no term limits, after eight years in office, Washington decided it was time to retire from public life, and return to his beloved Mount Vernon estate, and to his life as a prominent Virginian planter. At his death, all of his slaves were released and given their freedom.

-- Next time, we'll review Lincoln's train ride to Washington, to take office as the president of a deeply-divided nation.

- END -


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