On April 16, 1789, two days after he was notified that the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia had elected him president of the new government, George Washington left his home on the Potomac River in Virginia and started out for New York.
He was accompanied by Chares Thomson of the Congress and Col. David Humphreys, his military aide. He was greeted by officials, cheering crowds and artillery salutes along the way in Alexandria, Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Trenton, Princeton and New Brunswick.
He crossed the river from Rahway to New York on April 23, in an elaborate barge built by the city for the occasion. It was rowed by 13 men, one from each state, dressed in white. Dozens of private boats accompanied it.
Gov. George Clinton and a gathering of New York merchants and other citizens greeted Washington, and the group walked to a house that had been prepared for him by Congress.
The Congress was meeting in the City Hall, at Wall and Nassau Sts. On Thursday, April 30, the oath of office was given in an outer gallery of the chamber being used by the Senate.
Washington arrived at 12:30, alone in a coach, preceded by troops from the city, members of the congress and government officials from the old colonial government and followed by ministers of foreign countries and a huge crowd of citizens.
He was dressed in a dark brown suit, which had metal buttons with the image of an eagle on them, with white stockings, and a sword hanging from his waist.
Inside, Washington was greeted by newly-elected Vice President John Adams and members of Congress. He walked between lines of Senators and Representatives elected by the former colonies, now called states, bowing to each of them.
He was seated, while the vice-president-elect greeted him with a speech. Then, he stepped out of the middle window onto the balcony, followed by the Congressmen.
Chancellor Robert Livingston, New York’s highest ranking judge, administered the oath of office prescribed in the new Constitution: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Washington kissed the Bible that Livingston was holding. Livingston called out, “Long live George Washington, President of the United States,” and a 13-cannon salute was fired.
The crowd in the street below gave three cheers. Washington bowed to them, and they gave three more.
The group went inside, and Washington made a short speech. He read from notes he had in his pocket.
William Maclay, a Pennsylvania senator, who was present, recorded in his diary: “He rose, and all arose also, and addressed them. This great man was agitated and embarrassed more than ever he was by the leveled cannon or pointed musket. He trembled, and several times could scarce make out to read, though it must be supposed he had often read it before.”
Then, Washington and the members of Congress walked to services at St. Paul’s chapel. The chapel was 23 years old then, and near the edge of farmland. In our time, it was across the street from the Twin Towers, and survived their explosion in 2001.
There were fireworks in the evening.
Visit columnist Jim Smart’s web site at jamessmartsphiladelphia.com.
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