George Washington won the confidence of the American people during the eight-year struggle for independence from Britain. He won their hearts when he gave up power and went home to his Virginia plantation at the end of the Revolution. Only with great reluctance had he been drawn out of retirement to attend—and head—the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
Over the next two years, it became obvious to virtually everyone that he would have to serve as first president if the new government devised by the Constitution was to succeed. Have you ever wondered how he felt as he stood on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City on April 30, 1789, as his inauguration began? Thankfully, he left us some clues.
Knowing that he was almost certainly going to be the choice of the electoral college, Washington confided to a friend on April 1st:
“my movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution: so unwilling am I, in the evening of a life nearly consumed in public cares, to quit a peaceful abode for an Ocean of difficulties, without that competency of political skill, abilities and inclination which is necessary to manage the helm.”
He learned the election results thirteen days later, when Charles Thomson, the Secretary of Congress, arrived with the official notification. As Washington headed for New York on April 16th, his mood had not changed as he recorded in his diary:
“About ten o’clock I bade adieu to Mount Vernon, to private life, and to domestic felicity; and with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express, set out for New York…with the best dispositions to render service to my country in obedience to its call, but with less hope of answering its expectations.”
Washington’s Inauguration is vividly recreated in an exhibition that opens at the National Constitution Center on July 1. Discover the Real George Washington: New Views from Mount Vernon includes a life-size model of Washington as he looked on April 30, 1789, when he stepped onto the second floor balcony of New York City’s Federal Hall to take the oath of office as the first president of the United States.
Mary V. Thompson is Research Historian at Mount Vernon.