(Original post of 2014 updated 4/30/2020)
The American Presidency began 231 years ago when George Washington took the oath of office on April 30, 1789.
For the occasion, Washington wore a suit made in Connecticut. He hoped it would become “unfashionable for a gentleman to appear in any other dress” than one of American manufacture.
(Excerpted from Don’t Know Much About® the American Presidents)
He took the oath of office on April 30, 1789, a cool, clear Thursday morning. One similarity to modern inaugurations was the big crowd. A large throng of New Yorkers filled the streets of what is now the city’s financial district, then the center of a city that was much smaller than modern Manhattan.
Washington arrived by carriage to what had previously been New York’s City Hall, given a “face-lift” by Pierre L’Enfant, future designer of the nation’s capital city. The entire government operated out of this single building, renamed Federal Hall. Washington managed more people on his Mount Vernon plantation than worked for the new national government.
For the inauguration he was dressed in a brown suit, white silk stockings, and shoes with silver buckles, and he carried a sword. The suit cloth was made in a mill in Hartford, Connecticut, and Washington had said that he hoped it would soon be “unfashionable for a gentleman to appear in any other dress” than one of American manufacture.
Standing on the second- floor balcony, the “Father of Our Country” took the oath of office on a Masonic Bible. Legend has it that he kissed the Bible and said, “So help me God”— words not required by the Constitution.
But there is no contemporary report of Washington saying those words. On the contrary, one eyewitness account, by the French minister, Comte de Moustier, recounts the full text of the oath without mentioning the Bible kiss or the “So help me God” line. Washington’s use of the words was not reported until late in the nineteenth century. (The demythologizing of this piece of presidential history occasioned a suit by notable atheist Michael Newdow, who sued unsuccessfully in 2009 to keep all mention of God out of the inauguration of Barack Obama.)
What followed was the first Inaugural Address, written by James Madison. Here Washington spoke freely of “the propitious smiles of Heaven”— a divine hand in guiding the nation’s fate. These heavenly references raise the perennial question of faith in the early republic. But, as Ron Chernow writes in Washington, “Washington refrained from endorsing any particular form of religion.”
Here is the transcript of Washington’s first inaugural address from the National Archives. The site of the first inauguration is Federal Hall National Memorial.
Read more about Washington, his life and his presidency in Don’t Know Much About® the American Presidents and Don’t Know Much About® History.