Inauguration Day (30 April 1789)

Recently elected President George Washington – the first president under the then just ratified Constitution (under which the U.S. government still operates) – delivered his inaugural address in New York City on April 30, 1789. The text is eight – that’s right, only eight – pages long and is in his handwriting. Held at the National Archives, these are its first and last pages:



Lately, I’ve spent only scant time following our 21st century goings on. Mostly I have been immersed in the late 18th century. ๐Ÿ˜œ

If you look at Washington’s original, this first paragraph of the address takes up the entire first page above, and then some:

Among the vicissitudes incident to life, no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order, and received on the fourteenth day of the present month. On the one hand, I was summoned by my Country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love, from a retreat which I had chosen with the fondest predilection, and, in my flattering hopes, with an immutable decision, as the asylum of my declining years: a retreat which was rendered every day more necessary as well as more dear to me, by the addition of habit to inclination, and of frequent interruptions in my health to the gradual waste committed on it by time. On the other hand, 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, could not but overwhelm with dispondence, one, who, inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpractised in the duties of civil administration, ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies. In this conflict of emotions, all I dare aver, is, that it has been my faithful study to collect my duty from a just appreciation of every circumstance, by which it might be affected. All I dare hope, is, that, if in executing this task I have been too much swayed by a grateful remembrance of former instances, or by an affectionate sensibility to this transcendent proof, of the confidence of my fellow-citizens; and have thence too little consulted my incapacity as well as disinclination for the weighty and untried cares before me; my error will be palliated by the motives which misled me, and its consequences be judged by my Country, with some share of the partiality in which they originated.

What restrained and civil language he used. To our eyes today, it is also almost poetic. That writing (and speaking) style was the polite and educated norm for American English in that era.

Have you noticed this, too? That paragraph? It is primarily about how he feels he is unequal to the task that lies ahead of him as president.

As Mount’s timeline of his Inauguration Day also notes of his delivery of the short speech:

According to assembled members of Congress, President Washington was visibly nervous, spoke in a surprisingly quiet voice, and maintained a serious, modest demeanor.

It bears repeating: George Washington believed the presidency would be beyond his talents and skill set.

George Washington's grave at his home, Mt. Vernon, Virginia. [Photo by me, 2011.]
George Washington’s (1732-1799) grave at his home, Mt. Vernon, Virginia. [Photo by me, 2011.]

Have a good day, wherever you are in the world.๐Ÿ˜Š

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Author: โ€œConventions: The Garden At Paris,โ€ โ€œPassports,โ€ โ€œFrontiers,โ€ and โ€œDistances.โ€ British Airways frequent flier. Lover of the Catskill Mountains...and the 1700s. New novel of 1797-1805, "Tomorrow The Grace," due out in 2019.