A Masonic Presence at Washington's Inauguration
Phillip M. Thienel, PM
Herndon Lodge No. 264
The mention of George Washington's name immediately calls to memory the maxim, "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."
Those firsts were not sought by Washington for his glory, but accrued to him as he pursued his country's good in a life of public service.
In the war for independence the Continental Congress sought Washington to be the colonies' General in Chief of the Army of the United Colonies. With the achievement of peace and independence by a treaty with Great Britain, Washington's fellow citizens sought him to be a member of the Constitutional Convention and that convention elected him its president. The Constitution he signed is still in force today. With the ratification of the Constitution prepared under his leadership, Washington's countrymen sought him to be their first president.
To our Grand Lodge of Virginia the highlight of the 200th Anniversary of Washington's inauguration as President on April 30, 1789 is the number of his firsts pertinent to the Masonic Fraternity. Washington was the first of 14 Masons to be inaugurated President. He was the first, and to date only Mason serving as Master of a Lodge when inaugurated. Also of interest was the Masonic atmosphere at his inaugural ceremony — the presence of Brother Masons and the Great Light of Freemasonry, The Holy Bible, provided by a Masonic Lodge, St. Johns No. 1 of New York.
Another distinction earned by Washington: he was the first, and to date the only, President to receive a unanimous electoral college vote.
Brother Washington was initiated into the Fraternity in Fredericksburg Lodge on November 4, 1752 and raised to the degree of Master Mason on August 4, 1753. From that date to his inauguration he had a long history of public service that earned him reverence and esteem.
A token of the respect he had earned was Alexandria Lodge electing him Master of the Lodge on April 28, 1788. Grand Master Edmund Randolph, who was also serving at the time as Governor of Virginia, gave approval to the election. On December 20, 1788 the Lodge reelected Washington for a two-year period. A Lodge history speculates Washington's role as Master was more of an honorary than ruling and governing function.
When Congress notified him on April 14, 1789 that he was the unanimous choice of the electors to be President, Washington responded, "unanimous suffrage in my favor scarcely leaves me the alternative for an option."
As fifty-seven year old President-elect Washington set out in his carriage April 16 for his inauguration in Federal Hall in New York City he was overwhelmed at the turnout of friends and citizens, and children, who cheered him.
The ovations of people along his route, the escorts by militia honor guards and testimonial dinners at inns as he traveled for 8 days through Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, to the port at Elizabeth Town, N.J. were beyond his expectations. As the barge that ferried Washington over the water to New York City, accompanied by a flotilla of boats filled with his admirers, tied up at Wall Street a throng of people stood by to welcome him. An observer described them "like ears of corn standing in a cornfield, and as persons who seemed incapable of being satisfied with gazing at this man of the people." The affection the people displayed for him was truly a testimony that he was first in the hearts of his countrymen.
With Washington's arrival in the city, Congress set April 30 for the eventful day of his inauguration. Washington waited in solemn gravity for the event.
Ceremonies on that day began at sunrise with the discharge of artillery fired at old Fort George near Bowling Green. At 9 o'clock church bells rang throughout the city for half an hour followed by religious services offering prayers for the "blessing of heaven on the new government, favor and protection on the President, and success and acceptance of his administration."
The inaugural procession formed early at the President's house. At noon with city troops leading the way Washington's carriage departed for Federal Hall where Congress in session awaited him. People in the crowded streets cheered. Washington alighted from his carriage on arrival and entered into the Senate Chamber where the Senate and House were assembled. Representative Elias Boudinot introduced Washington to the Assemblage. Washington bowed. Vice President John Adams then conducted Washington to his chair. Solemn silence prevailed.
Adams informed Washington that the Senate and House were ready to attend him to take the oath required by the Constitution. Washington assented. Adams escorted Washington to the balcony in front of the Senate Chamber in full view of a multitude of people on the street, leaning out the open windows and standing on roofs of adjacent buildings. It was an inspiring stage scene. Eyes were fixed on Washington's appearance. As he came out into the open he was greeted by public exultations. The demonstration of public affection touched Washington to the quick. He placed his hand on his heart and bowed. The people understood he was overcome by their demonstration and hushed into profound silence. Washington sat down on the arm chair next to a table covered with crimson cloth. On the table on a pillow had been placed a superbly bound Bible that had been borrowed from St. John's Lodge F. & A. M., opened to Psalm 127, "Except the Lord build the house." (A later-years picture of the Bible showed it opened to Genesis: 13-14)
Robert L. Livingston, Grand Master of Masons of the Grand Lodge of New York, and Chancellor of the State of New York, advanced to Washington's right and read slowly the oath required by the Constitution. Washington with his eyes closed, according to an observer, that his whole soul might be absorbed in the supplication, repeated the oath and declared, "I swear so help me God," and then bowed. Secretary of the Senate, Samuel A. Otis, lifted the Bible off its crimson cushion and held it up to Washington to kiss.
Grand Master Livingston then stepped forward, faced the spectators, and uttered, "Long live George Washington, President of the United States of America." A flag was raised on a pole on the cupola of the Federal Hall as a signal to the artillery at the battery to fire a salute. Bells pealed for joy. Hurrahs of the multitude on the streets rent the air. Washington again bowed to the people, and then returned to the Senate Chamber.
In a few moments Washington rose to speak.
The summons of his country to serve awakened in him, he said, a distrustful scrutiny of his qualifications. He believed himself unpracticed in civil administration. Yet, he sensed a transcendent proof in the high regard of his fellow citizens to negate his doubts.
The first act of office, he declared, should be supplications to the "Almighty Being" who rules the universe that the government and functions allotted to him would be successful. He added that every step in the country's contest for independence had been distinguished by some token of providential agency.
Because he had not sought the office of President he did not find it necessary to address any commitments. He asked to be excused from the Constitutional requirement to recommend measures to the Congress judged necessary to be acted upon. He preferred to offer a tribute due to the talents, rectitude, and patriotism of the members of Congress. On the need for any amendments to the Constitution needed for any amendments to the Constitution provided by Article V, and requested by some of the states, Washington said he would depend on Congress' discernment. On a matter personally affecting him, he renounced compensation as President, just as he had done when appointed General in Chief of the Army.
In conclusion, he remarked, "the foundation of our national policy will be laid on the pure and immutable principles of private morality, eternal rules or order, and the destiny of the republic model of government was staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people."
Upon completion of his address President Washington, Vice President Adams, members of Congress, and public figures who participated in the ceremony in Federal Hall walked to St. Paul's Episcopal Church where the Senate Chaplain, Reverend Samuel Provoost, conducted a prayer service. After the Te Deum was sung Washington left the church and entered his carriage to return to the President's mansion.
The public then went off to celebrate.
As the evening stars began to shine bonfires were lighted and candles placed in the windows of many homes. A dense crowd of people filled the streets.
After dinner at his home the President, accompanied by his aide Colonel David Humphrey and Secretary Tobias Lear, journeyed down lower Broadway to the home of Chancellor Livingston where they watched the resplendent display of fireworks. At 10 o'clock Washington walked home, the throng of people blocked the passage of his carriage.
Brother Washington's public and private life epitomized the teachings of our Masonic Fraternity as they pertain to the Supreme Architect of the Universe, our country, and our fellow creatures.
Throughout his life he answered his fellow citizens' claims on his kind offices.
His public service tasks symbolized the shaping of a perfect ashlar into a military victory for our independence, the preparation of our Constitution, and the inauguration of our first presidency.