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Presidential Inaugurations: Words and Images

George Washington, First Inauguration, April 30, 1789

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East View of Gray's Ferry, near Philadelphia; with the Triumphal Arches, &c. erected for the Reception of General Washington, April 20th, 1789. Library of Congress. Rare Books and Special Collections Division. Call number: AP2.A2U6. Reproduction number: LC-USZ62-342 (b&w film copy neg.).

As George Washington journeyed from Mount Vernon to his first inauguration in New York, each city he passed through prepared an elaborate reception for him. The Philadelphia preparations at Gray's Ferry are illustrated in an engraving from an article in the Columbian Magazine of May 1789. The text on pages 282-83 describes the preparations with references to points a, b, c, and d inscribed on the engraving.

Account of the Preparations at Gray's Ferry, on the river Schuykill, and of the Reception of General Washington there, April 20, 1789, on his way to the Seat of the Federal Government, to take upon him the high Office of President of the United States.

The whole railing, on each side of the bridge, was dressed with laurels interwoven with cedar. A triumphal arch, 20 feet high, decorated with laurel and other ever-greens, was erected at each end (a and b) in a style of neat simplicity: under the arch of that at the west [shore] end (a) hung a crown of laurel, connected by a line which extended to a pine tree on the high and rocky bank of the river, where the other extremity was held by a handsome boy, beautifully robed in white linen; a wreath of laurel bound his brows, and a girdle of the same his waist. Eleven colours [flags] were planted on the north side of the bridge, in allusion to those states which have ratified the constitution: on the south were two others: one emblematical of a new aera, the other representing Pennsylvania­it was the flag captain Bell carried to the East Indies, being the first ever hoisted there belonging to this state. At the end of the bridge (c) a striped cap of liberty was elevated on a pole about 25 feet in height; from which spread a banner-device, a rattle-snake, with the motto, 'Don't Tread On Me.' A large signal flag (d) was hoisted in the ferry gardens, to give notice of the general's [Washington's] approach to those who were posted on the other side of the Schuykill. On the top of the ferry-post, on the west side [shore], a banner was displayed--the device a sun, with the motto, 'Behold The Rising Empire': on the opposite shore flew a banner, alluding to commerce--motto, 'May Commerce Flourish.' The ferry boat and barge were anchored in the river, and displayed a variety of colours, particularly a jack bearing eleven stars.

About noon the illustrious Washington appeared, and as he passed under the first triumphal arch, the acclamations of an immense crowd of spectators rent the air, and the laurel crown, at that instant, descended on his venerable head.

His Excellency was saluted on the common by a discharge from the artillery, and escorted into Philadelphia by a large body of troops, together with his excellency the president of the state, and a numerous concourse of respectable citizens.


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Letter from James Madison to Edmund Randolph, May 10, 1789. Library of Congress. Manuscript Division. The Papers of James Madison.

Bound in a red leather volume among the Papers of James Madison in the Manuscript Division is a letter written in faded brown ink on two leaves of beige paper. Addressed to "My dear friend," it is a letter from Madison to Edmund Randolph, sent from New York on May 10, 1789. Madison, a representative from Virginia at this time and future president of the United States, writes to Randolph, who was appointed first as attorney general, then as secretary of state under President Washington. Madison describes on pages 2-3 why the president-elect, General Washington, was delayed in coming to New York for his inauguration, the certainty of his election, and the omission of titles in his inaugural address as prescribed beforehand by a joint congressional committee.


No question has been made in this quarter or elsewhere as far as I have learned, whether the Genl ought to have accepted the Trust. On the contrary opinions have been unanimous & decided that it was essential to the commencement of the Government and a duty from which no private considerations could absolve him. The promptitude of his setting out from Mount Vernon was the effect of information of the delay of business here, the impatience of the public mind, and the necessity of his presence to make the Government competent to its first & most urgent objects. His election was . . . a certainty a long time before the ballots were opened, and informally communicated I believe, before it was regularly notified. It was taken for granted here that under the circumstances of the occasion, he would lose no time in repairing to his station, if he meant not to decline it altogether. Col. Griffin has I presume sent you his inaugural speech. Inclosed is the answer of the H. of Reps. The address is purged you will observe of all titles whatsoever except the Constitutional one. This point had been previously determined by a report from a joint committee originated by the Senate for the purpose of settling what or whether any titles shd be assigned to the President & vice President. The report was unanimously agreed to by the H. of Reps previous to the address. I am sorry to find that the Senate do not concur in this principle of dignified simplicity. They have disagreed to the report of the joint Committee, and have proposed another consultation on the subject. The H. of Reps will assuredly adhere to the first determination. . . . Ever most affecty yrs [signed] Js Madison Jr . . . My complts to the Presidt

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