Written by Marci Reaven, Vice President of History Exhibits
With presidential inaugurations in mind, we recently mounted a display of rare artifacts from the first inauguration—George Washington’s. You can see them as soon as you enter the museum.
George Washington (1732-1799), 1795. Charles Willson Peale, artist. Oil on canvas.39 3/4 in. × 34 7/8 in. × 5 in. (101 × 88.6 × 12.7 cm) Gift of Thomas Jefferson Bryan. New-York Historical Society, 1867.299.
One of the objects is a section of the wrought-iron balustrade, or railing, that adorned the new capitol on Wall Street, at the corners of Broad and Nassau. New York City had been named the capital of the United States of America, and Pierre Charles L’Enfant (later designer and city planner of Washington, D.C.) was commissioned to remodel the old city hall into Federal Hall. L’Enfant adorned the capitol with patriotic motifs. The balustrade contains one of these: 13 arrows bound tightly together, one for each state in the Republic.
On April 30, 1789, George Washington stood on the balcony of Federal Hall, poised to become the nation’s first president. Washington was the most respected public figure of his day; entrusted with the task of defining the presidency and developing a powerful and independent executive branch of government. As directed by the Constitution, he took the oath of office:
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.
Having sworn to uphold the laws of the land, Washington went inside to the Senate chamber to speak to Congress. As in so many other respects, Washington set the pattern for later presidents, and the inaugural address quickly became tradition. Two artifacts in the display are associated with this moment.
Amos Doolittle (American, 1754-1832) after Pierre Lacour I (French, 1745-1814). Federal Hall, The Seat of Congress. Process reproduction from the original engraving (1790), 1903. New-York Historical Society Library
One is the mahogany armchair that was placed for Washington in front of the assembled Senate. The other item is a broadside, or flyer, that published the president’s speech for the public. Washington began by expressing his humility at having been entrusted with such a weighty responsibility. And he pledged that the members of the new executive branch of government would uphold the highest standards of private morality and strive to earn the affection of their fellow citizens and the respect of the world. After two decades of political instability and economic loss, a national government had been launched. It was an experiment citizens hoped would work for many years to come.
The First Inauguration display will be on view through February 26, 2017. This installation is presented in conjunction with the New-York Historical Society’s educational initiative, The Presidency Project. Learn more.