One of the great perks of interning in the Center for Legislative Archives is assisting with Vault tours. I helped with about ten of them; guests usually included members of Congress, their families, and/or their staffs (although Jimmy Smits and David Archuleta were kind enough to drop in before the July 4 festivities). Vault visitors each have a hands-free moment with the documents the Center’s staff has selected beforehand. Unless things have changed, virtually every tour includes a showing of the magnificent item pictured above–the first and last pages of the first inaugural address delivered in American history.
Washington drafted the message himself and delivered it in the Senate chamber of Federal Hall, which housed the First Congress in New York City and unfortunately no longer stands. (I might’ve lamented the building’s destruction in a certain 250-word essay.) It’s hard to miss the Washington statue if you’re ever on Wall Street. Those of you who saw the John Adams series on HBO are familiar with the best efforts of our contemporaries to recreate the scene of Washington’s inauguration. Save Independence Hall and Faneuil Hall, probably no building in America could’ve lent a more favorable aspect to the new American experiment than what became known as Federal Hall. John Peter Zenger was acquitted of libel against a royally appointed governor there, and the Stamp Act Congress and Confederation Congress also convened in the building.
There’s not much to pick apart here, but notice that Washington addressed his message to “Fellow Citizens of the Senate and of the House of Representatives.” When he used the second person, he spoke directly to his Congressional audience, not his compatriots: “. . . the great constitutional charter under which you are assembled, and which, in defining your powers, designates the objects to which your attention is to be given,” “my entire confidence in your discernment and pursuit of the public good,” etc. Presidents would soon write for and speak to “Fellow-Citizens,” “My Countrymen,” and “Fellow Citizens of the United States.”
Every element of Washington’s first inauguration was unprecedented, and he also inaugurated the custom of professing (perhaps affecting) humility in contemplation of four arduous years of executive duties:
. . . the magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me . . . 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.