On Exhibit: George Washington’s First Inaugural Address and Bible

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In honor of the upcoming Presidential inauguration, Washington’s first inaugural address and the Bible that he used to swear his oath of office are on display. The Bible was loaned for the occasion by St. John’s Lodge No. 1, Ancient York Masons, which still owns the Bible today.

Since the country’s first inauguration of George Washington as President, Presidential inaugurations have been important civic rituals in our national political life. George Washington set many precedents as the first President of the United States, beginning on the day he took office. The Constitution requires only that the President-elect swear or affirm an oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” No particular ceremony is mandated for the occasion.

On April 30, 1789, in the temporary capital of New York City on the second floor balcony of Federal Hall, George Washington placed his hand upon a bible and publicly swore his oath before a cheering crowd.  He then delivered his inaugural address to a joint session of Congress in the Senate Chamber in Federal Hall. These rituals observed during Washington’s first inauguration are the foundation upon which inaugural traditions are based today.

George Washington was keenly aware of the magnitude of his inauguration and the expectation and anxiety of many Americans regarding the future of the fragile new government. His first words as President would set the tone not just for his Presidency, but the entire country. Therefore, he sought to assure the nation and the world of his determination to make the American experiment a success.

“My station is new; and, if I may use the expression, I walk on untrodden ground.”

–George Washington in a letter, January 9, 1790

In this handwritten address to Congress, he humbly noted the power of the nation’s call to serve as President and the shared responsibility of the President and Congress to preserve “the sacred fire of liberty” and a republican form of government. Washington’s address was later printed and distributed throughout the nation and around the world.

Article 2, Section 1, of the United States Constitution requires that the President-elect swear the oath of office before assuming the Presidency. It does not specify how that oath should be administered. A devout man, George Washington swore his oath with his hand placed over Genesis chapters 49-50 on this King James Bible at Federal Hall in New York City. The Bible was loaned for the occasion by St. John’s Lodge No. 1, Ancient York Masons, which still owns the Bible today. Additionally, the Bible has been used in the inaugurations of Presidents Harding, Eisenhower, Carter, and George H.W. Bush. Most, but not all, Presidents since Washington have sworn their oath over a Bible or other religious text.

The speech and the Bible will be on display until January 25, 2017. The Museum at the National Archives is open to the public on Inauguration Day (January 20).

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Page one of Washington’s first inaugural address, National Archives, records of the U.S. Senate

 

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Eighth and final page of Washington’s first inaugural address, National Archives, Records of the U.S. Senate

 

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