These days if you wanted to visit the center of financial power, you’d go to Wall Street. But before there was a stock exchange, New York temporarily served as the center of American political power.
On April 30, 1789, George Washington went to Federal Hall on New York’s Wall Street to be sworn in as the nation’s first president. Congress had been meeting at the site for a month, and Vice President John Adams had been sworn in on April 21. Washington, however, was the new government’s main attraction. The indispensable man of the revolution, Washington was now summoned in times of peace to take on the top executive office. His stature would give the newly established government heft, his actions would shape the office of the presidency, and his character would give citizens a model to be imitated for generations.
Washington’s behavior that day was typically modest. For this occasion he wore a simple brown suit, made in America. He took the oath of office on a Bible that had been opened at random, then moved indoors to address lawmakers.
His inaugural message was short by modern standards. At 1,400 words, it takes only about 10 minutes to read out loud. Even more unlike modern presidential inaugurals, Washington acknowledged the difficultly of the task ahead, wondering whether he was even up to the job. In this, his modesty was a reflection of his prudence, for he acknowledged “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.” He vowed nonetheless to do his best.
Washington’s inaugural contained neither specific policy recommendations or requests—he told lawmakers he trusted their judgement, and would leave lawmaking up to them. Washington did, however, express gratitude at having been “summoned by my Country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love.” Washington went on to ask for God’s blessing on the new United States, a prayer that’s clearly been answered.
The new president was a calming influence at a volatile moment. The Constitution had barely taken effect, but there was much talk of amending it. Washington declined to either support or oppose any particular changes. “I shall again give way to my entire confidence in your discernment and pursuit of the public good.” The changes, drafted by James Madison, would eventually become the Bill of Rights.
George Washington was “First in war, first in peace,” and the model for the American presidency. Exactly 225 years ago, his words inaugurated an experiment that continues to this day. On this day, we have occasion to reflect on the nature of the man given this memorable task.