It was 223 years ago today that George Washington took the office as president. Today, jaded as we are, it would be tempting to say that so began the downfall of Washington, the city that so many covet yet ridicule in the same breath.
In truth, Washington, the man, was better than the job. Moreover, Washington, the city, did not yet exist on April 30, 1789.
Two years earlier, the Constitution had ordered the establishment of a capital city, and Washington himself picked it out. It would not be completed until after he had taken office, however, and when he initiated the long line of presidents, it was in the temporary capital in New York City.
The general who had won independence only reluctantly accepted his new nation’s call to office – that after becoming the only chief executive who will ever be elected unanimously by the Electoral College.
He stepped out onto the balcony of the Senate Chamber at Federal Hall on Wall Street and took the oath of office, then delivered an inaugural address to the two Houses of Congress.
He told Congress he was humbled about accepting the job. He had health problems. He was inexperienced, aging and content to be retired at his postwar plantation.
“On the other hand,” Washington said, “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 despondence one who (inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpracticed 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.”
He went on to praise the new Constitution that defined the powers of the House and Senate. He paid tribute to “the talents, the rectitude, and the patriotism which adorn the characters selected to devise and adopt” laws; that is, Congress.
Well, the country was young, and there was still hope.
He told the House members that just as he had refused a salary to lead the Continental Army, so too he would not accept pay to be president, except for expenses.
As I said, this was a long, long time ago.
In closing, he resorted “once more to the benign Parent of the Human Race in humble supplication that, since He has been pleased to favor the American people … His divine blessing may be equally conspicuous in the enlarged views, the temperate consultations, and the wise measures on which the success of this Government must depend.”
Or, as they might say today, “God bless America.”