Here at the Tenement Museum, we tell the stories of average people who made our country what it is today. As millions of people gathered this week in Washington, DC, to watch the second Inauguration of President Barack Obama, I was reminded that the Inauguration has always been as much about the citizens as it is about the President. In fact, the tradition of taking the Oath of Office outdoors for all to see has its roots not in our nation’s capital, but right here in lower Manhattan.
On April 30, 1789, George Washington was sworn in as the United States’ first President on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street. A week prior, Congress had decided to administer the Oath in public view, “to the end that…the greatest number of people of the United States, and without distinction, may witness the solemnity.” Those first crowds of spectators were comprised of local New Yorkers who came to do just that—celebrate Washington’s election and witness him taking the Oath of Office.
Washington taking the Oath of Office in 1789, on the site of the present Treasury Building, Wall Street, New York City. Courtesy New York Public Library.
Though in 1789 the Lower East Side was not yet the immigrant hotbed it would become, it was a burgeoning neighborhood. Residents of the Lower East Side, as well as other lower Manhattan neighborhoods, were integral in legitimizing the Inauguration ceremony and, in turn, the new democratic government it represented.
In much the same way as President Obama this week, President Washington spoke directly to the people in his Inaugural Address, stating, “Since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”
In his 1878 American history chronicle, Our country: a household history for all readers, Benson John Lossing recounted Washington’s face-to-face moments with voters at receptions that followed his swearing in: “As visitors came in, they were introduced to him [George Washington] by Colonel Humphreys, who was master of ceremonies, when they were arranged in a circle around the room. At a quarter-past three o’clock the door was closed, when the company for the day was completed. The President then began on the right, and spoke to each visitor, calling him by name, and addressing a few words to him. When he had completed the circuit, he resumed his first position, when the visitors approached him, bowed and retired.”
As the man who is believed to have coined the term “Empire State,” Washington always had a deep connection with New York City. After all, once sworn in, he became a New Yorker himself, moving into a single family home with wife Martha on Cherry Street, mere blocks from the Lower East Side.
George Washington's house on Cherry Street, New York City. Courtesy New York Public Library.