The Father of Inaugurations: Washington's Eight-Day Entry Endures as Most Memorable

By DiBacco, Thomas V. | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 20, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Father of Inaugurations: Washington's Eight-Day Entry Endures as Most Memorable


DiBacco, Thomas V., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Say what you will about the magnificence of recent inaugurations, the first one still stands as the most impressive - even though the money spent was modest by contemporary standards.

That was the inauguration of George Washington, the Virginia general and gentleman who left his Mount Vernon home on April 16, 1789, and began a historic eight-day journey to New York City, which had been chosen as the first capital of the United States of America. From Alexandria - Washington's hometown - to Baltimore, Wilmington, Del., Philadelphia and numerous stops in-between, Washington's horse-drawn carriage was met with parades, big banquets, fireworks, speeches, gun salutes and the pealing of bells. No town wanted to be upstaged in celebratory antics by the previous one - the closer to the Big Apple George Washington got, the greater the big show

In Newark, N.J., for instance, city folk got Washington to ride on a white horse (with a highly ornamented saddle) as a chorus of onlookers sang to him and children scattered flowers in his path. Finally, as he entered Manhattan, his entourage was so swamped by the crowd of well-wishers that it came to a stop for almost an hour.

The formal inauguration was held April 30 at Federal Hall, formerly New York's City Hall, where Congress had assembled for the event. Washington's short and moving speech, which established a precedent, made the ceremony so impressive that some in Congress wanted to dub the chief executive, "His Highness, the president of the United States."

Vice President John Adams, who called Washington's talk "his most gracious speech," was the leader of this high-and-mighty name group. He contended that foreign nations would not respect the chief executive unless he had a proper title. Fortunately, the faction led by Sen. William Maclay of Pennsylvania prevailed.

"Mr. President," said Maclay during the debate, "the Constitution of the United States has designated our chief magistrate by the appellation of the president of the United States of America. This is his title of office, nor can we alter, add to or diminish it without infringing the Constitution. . . . As to what the common people, soldiers and sailors of foreign countries may think of us, I do not think it imports us much. Perhaps the less they think, or have occasion to think of us, the better."

The capital city moved for a short time to Philadelphia, but the permanent capital on the shores of the Potomac River was the site for the inauguration of the nation's third president, Thomas Jefferson, on March 4, 1801.

However, the event in Washington was marred by two incidents. Outgoing President John Adams, embittered about Jefferson's winning the office, left town without attending the inauguration. Also, the Capitol was far from completed, and Capitol Hill was conspicuous for its lack of amenities.

The Hill had only a few boardinghouses, a tailor shop, a shoemaker store, a grocery, a stationery shop, a dry goods business and an oyster house. Foreign diplomats who were used to much more refined surroundings were appalled. "What have I done to be condemned to reside in such a city?" exclaimed a French minister.

But the city quickly flourished, and by the time of the next president, James Madison, the inaugural ball was introduced. With James Monroe came the decision to move the inaugural ceremony from the Senate or House chambers to the Eastern portico of the Capitol, where large crowds could gather to witness the event. Then came the inaugural parade to replace the simple escort of the newly sworn president from the Capitol to the White House.

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