Two hundred and twenty-five years ago Wednesday, George Washington put his hand on a Masonic Bible and became the first person to recite the presidential oath of office. It may have been the whiniest inauguration in history. Washington told anyone who would listen that he was unfit for the job. He constantly fretted about it. He wrote that waiting for official word of his selection was like waiting for his hanging. “I wish there may not be reason for regretting the choice,” he said upon being informed of the official decision. During his ride to the inauguration in New York, he confessed his fears at every stop. In the first line of the first inaugural address he said, “No event could have filled me with greater anxieties.”
Presidents have often complained that the White House is like a prison. “Being president is like being a jackass in a hailstorm,” said Lyndon Johnson. “There’s nothing to do but stand there and take it.” This might seem like a modern phenomenon—the product of constant media scrutiny, the permanent Secret Service bubble, and the relentless partisan sniping. But the bars were there long before the White House was even built. George Washington behaved like he was walking into a presidential penitentiary.
Presidents are expected to perform miracles but lack the instruments to achieve them. Harry Truman wrote in his diary about the “great white jail” where the disconnect between what the people want and what the Constitution allows a president to deliver was so strong it caused the ghosts of his predecessors to roam the halls: “The tortured souls who were and are misrepresented in history are the ones who come back.”
The modern president is expected to act. Washington’s task was to fight against being pulled into action by countrymen who wanted to make him king. “I greatly apprehend that my countrymen will expect too much from me,” he wrote, worrying that the extravagant “undue praises which they are heaping upon me at this moment” would quickly turn to equally extravagant “censures.” He faced more than high expectations, though. He faced the other aspect of presidential confinement: the acute feeling of impotence. His long and winding trip from Mount Vernon to his April 30, 1789, inauguration in New York was a prolonged demonstration of how difficult it would be to work his will in office. He asked his countrymen not to make a fuss over his inauguration and they repeatedly, resolutely, and resoundingly ignored him.
Washington’s reluctance to serve is legendary. It was a mixture of healthy modesty and genuine fear that at 57 he was not up to the task. But it was also a public relations ploy. Washington showed reluctance in the hope that his countrymen would not think he had taken the job to enrich himself or that anyone should want such a post for that reason. Historian Joseph Ellis in His Excellency: George Washington quotes one thrilled supporter telling the new president, “You are now a king, under a different name.” That was the last thing he wanted to hear. A republic couldn’t be led by a king. Some in Congress had tried to load Washington with the title “His Highness the President of the United States of America and the Protector of Their Liberties,” but he slapped it away. He would be called Mr. President.
But the people didn’t care what Washington wanted. As Ron Chernow writes in colorful detail in Washington: A Life, his trek north became a comic tale of new ways his countrymen found to thwart his desire for a low-key promotion.
Washington set out from Mount Vernon on April 16, writing in his diary that his “mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express.” He was in a hurry to get to New York so that he could start working, hoping to make the trip in “as quiet and peaceable manner as possible.” He wrote to the governor of New York asking to be put up in public lodgings, so it wouldn’t look like he was taxing any private individual and pleaded for no hoopla: “No reception can be so congenial to my feelings as a quiet entry devoid of ceremony.”
In Alexandria, Virginia, at the start of his journey, hundreds of men, women, and children greeted him in the streets. (Traffic has been hell in Alexandria ever since.) At his dinner that night, he had to endure 13 toasts. In Baltimore and Delaware, the streets were also lined. Newspapers had printed his travel route. Veterans appeared in their uniforms. Songs were sung to celebrate his life.
As he approached Philadelphia, 20,000 people filled the streets, some yelling “Long live George Washington,” which sounded very much like the phrase the English used to greet their monarchs. City fathers asked Washington to dismount and ride a white horse through town. While crossing a bridge wreathed in laurels and evergreens, a cherubic boy was lowered so that he could place a laurel crown on the president-elect’s head. (Ellis writes that the wreath was actually lowered by the daughter of Charles Willson Peale, the famous painter and Washington portraitist.)
Anyone who has had to feign gratitude at a gaudy birthday gift can relate to Washington’s predicament. He was being forced to wear the itchy sweater for a week, smiling as if he liked it. After spending the night in Philadelphia, he couldn’t hack it anymore. He left early to avoid the departure ceremony. But that only made him early for the rose petals in Trenton, New Jersey. A floral arch erected in his honor read “December 26, 1776,” the date of his famous victory at that spot. It also read “The Defender of the Mothers will also Defend the Daughters.” To make sure Washington didn’t miss the point, 13 young girls dressed in white walked before him spreading flowers. The trip ended with a barge ride into New York, manned by 13 oarsmen, also dressed in virginal white. A flotilla accompanied him, including other barges, where musicians played and hymns were sung. The city streets were filled, flags waved, and cannons fired. So much for the “quiet entry devoid of ceremony.”
After spending a week in New York making preparations for the inauguration, Washington ditched his initial 73-page speech, which included a long justification explaining that he had not taken the job for personal gain. Instead, he gave an intentionally enigmatic address, fearful that each line might set a precedent. It wasn’t a commanding performance. “This great man was agitated and embarrassed more than ever he was by the leveled cannon or pointed musket,” wrote Pennsylvania Sen. William Maclay in his diary. One precedent had been set, though. Presidents have been unsuccessfully battling the expectations of their countrymen ever since.