MANHATTAN — Manhattan citizens (population 30,000) were jolted awake by gunfire on the morning of April 30, 1789. The skies were overcast but soon the sun came out to greet the great day for George Washington’s inauguration as first president of the United States. Most likely those awakened breakfasted on bacon, meat pastries, fish, cheese, and bread and jam, washed down with ale. They dressed in their holiday attire.
Visitors were in town from all parts of the Union. Private houses were filled with guests, the hotels were packed, and many slept in tents hastily erected in fields and lots. Farmers poured into town mounted on horses, and packet boats brought multitudes down Long Island Sound and the Hudson River. The Brooklyn-Manhattan ferry was packed on each trip. Standing at the rails and gazing at the waterfront, passengers could count 100 ships rocking at anchor.
All businesses closed down for the day. By 8:30 a.m. the streets began to fill up. Men and boys climbed onto roofs of buildings near what was City Hall until Mayor Richard Varick lent it to Congress to become Federal Hall.
At 9 a.m. people were summoned by church bells to pray for George Washington. By 10:30 a.m. Federal Hall was beginning to fill up with senators and representatives. After a brief discussion, a joint Congressional committee went to the Presidential mansion at 3 Cherry Street to escort Washington to Federal Hall.
Washington was not dressed in his customary imported silk, but had chosen a brown suit of homespun broadcloth from a Hartford mill. He felt he should encourage domestic manufacturing. His somewhat drab appearance was relieved by white silk stockings, metal buttons embossed with eagles, cuff buttons studded with thirteen stars, and a sword encased in a white leather scabbard. His powdered wig was caught behind in a silk bag.
A waiting crowd cheered as Washington stepped into a cream-colored coach, decorated with cupids holding festoons of flowers in their pink hands. Four superb horses were hitched to the carriage.
At the Capitol, Washington was ushered inside and to the Senate chamber on the second floor. The arched blue ceiling glittered with a sun and thirteen stars.
Washington stepped out onto the balcony fronting on Wall Street and facing south down Broad Street. A great roar went up from the waiting crowd. Washington bowed three times, sat down on a chair, and, overcome with emotion, dropped his head into his hands. A hush came over the crowd.
Washington was ready to take the oath but no Bible could be found in Federal Hall. They quickly fetched one from a nearby Masonic lodge. His big right hand came down on the open Bible which rested on a crimson cushion. Washington then spoke these words: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” He leaned down and kissed the Bible and murmured as he straightened up, “So help me, God!”
“It is done!” Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, grand master of the New York Masons, who was holding the Bible, and had administered the oath, exclaimed with tears in his eyes. “Long live George Washington, President of the United States!” And the crowd took up the chant: “Long live George Washington, President of the United States.” A 13-gun salute was sounded from the harbor, and the flag of the infant nation was hoisted above the building, a proud symbol of the new republic.
Following his inaugural address, Washington was escorted to nearby St. Paul’s Chapel to pray.
April 30, 2012 - 12:15am