Presidential Precedents

The Library of Congress holds the papers of 23 U.S. presidents, from George Washington to Calvin Coolidge. These collections, housed in the Manuscript Division—and the Library’s holdings in other formats such as rare books, photographs, films, sound recordings, sheet music and maps—inform us about the time and tenor of each of their administrations.
Unique to each president were the circumstances surrounding his inauguration. One was the first to hold the office. Others were elected to the office during trying times in the nation’s history. Some of those elected to office reflected a major shift in the nature of the electorate. Still others were thrust into the role by the deaths of their predecessors. Following many of the precedents set by the first president—with some variations on the theme introduced by those who followed—the presidential inauguration remains a pivotal event.
The following is an excerpt from an article on presidential inaugurations in the January-February 2013 issue of the LCM. Written by Julie Miller of the Manuscript Division, this story takes a look at the inauguration of George Washington.

George Washington is depicted delivering his inaugural address on April 30, 1789, in this painting by T.H. Matteson, 1849.

April 30, 1789
George Washington’s inauguration on April 30, 1789, was literally without precedent. The Constitution mandated only that the president take an oath of office, and it prescribed the language of the oath, but it said nothing about how an inauguration day should go. Washington told the House and Senate committees formed to plan the inauguration that he would accept “any time or place” and “any manner” they chose. Finally, the shape of the day was determined not only by the committees but also by Washington himself and by the citizens of the capital city, New York.

The committees’ plan was set in motion when they escorted Washington, his speech folded in the pocket of his suit of American-made cloth, to Federal Hall at Wall and Broad Streets. A crowd of citizens followed behind the president-elect’s carriage. At Federal Hall, Washington stepped out from the Senate chamber onto the balcony. There, overlooking a large crowd of citizens, he took his oath on a Bible acquired at the last minute from a nearby Masonic lodge. “Long live George Washington!” shouted Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, who had administered the oath, reinterpreting the cheer traditionally used to greet monarchs. The crowd shouted back their approval.

The next part of the ceremony, the delivery of Washington’s inaugural speech before Congress, took place inside. Washington’s speech established a precedent that has been used by every elected president since, although its self-effacing tone was the mark of the 18th-century gentleman. He felt unequal, Washington told his listeners, to “the magnitude and difficulty of the trust” to which he had been called. As he spoke he trembled with nerves and emotion. Pennsylvania Senator William Maclay recorded in his journal that “This great man was agitated and embarrassed more than ever he was by the leveled cannon or pointed musket.” The president continued— reminding his audience, which represented “many distinct communities” that had not always been in concord—that the “sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”

That evening the celebrations began. Like those that followed, the first presidential inaugural was celebrated with a ball, which was postponed for a week pending the arrival of Martha Washington from Virginia. But that night a ship in the harbor shot off 13 cannon, houses were bright with illuminations, and fireworks lit the sky. When it was all over the streets were so crowded with people that Washington had to abandon his carriage and walk home. The next day the Daily Advertiser congratulated its readers: “Every honest man must feel a singular felicity in contemplating this day. – Good government, the best of blessings, now commences under favourable auspices.”

MORE INFORMATION
Research the Library’s holdings of presidential papers
View a web presentation of presidential inaugurations
View an online exhibition of inaugural collection items

You can read more about the inaugurations of presidents Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and Calvin Coolidge here by downloading the complete January-February 2013 issue of the LCM .

One Comment

  1. susan fisher
    January 22, 2013 at 4:50 pm

    God instituted parties in his feasts. It’s good to have a celebration. Wish I had been there as the President walked with other citizens on the streets home from that party.

    I can’t somehow believe he would have been for abortion or euthanizing elderly people who were sick. I think he would have counted that sort of president as an enemy of the United States and of God.

    Susan fisher

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