A Man of Many Firsts: George Washington's First Inauguration

Illustration of George Washington talking to a group of people
An 1849 print by Henry Sadd and John Neale, based on a painting by T. H. Matteson, depicting George Washington's first inauguration on April 30, 1789.

Library of Congress

“First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen…” Those words are from Major General Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee’s eulogy for George Washington, after his death December 14th, 1799.

Washington’s leadership of the Continental Army as it struggled to fight Great Britain during the Revolutionary War earned the undying respect of many. Some who served under him even advocated that Washington become the next monarch. A May, 1782 letter from Colonel Lewis Nicola suggested, “… I believe strong arguments might be produced for admitting the title of king…” Washington immediately made it clear in his response to Nicola he had no royal aspirations, “I am much at a loss to conceive what part of my conduct could have given encouragement to an address which to me seems big with the greatest mischiefs that can befall my Country. If I am not deceived in the knowledge of myself, you could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable.”

After resigning his military commission and serving as president of the Constitutional Convention, Washington wanted to retire to his beloved Mount Vernon and live out the rest of his life as a peaceful farmer. However, voters insisted the new nation still needed his leadership. Therefore, Washington was not only the first president of the United States, but the only candidate in history to receive a unanimous vote from the Electoral College.

After Washington’s election, the founders were at a crossroads as to how he would be addressed. During the war Washington was addressed as “General” or “Your Excellency.” Future second president John Adams even suggested “Your Highness” and “Your Most Benign Highness.” Since the Constitution prohibits titles of nobility, it was finally settled that George Washington be addressed as “Mr. President.” Following his inauguration on April 14th, 1789, George Washington would continue to set important precedents as first president of the United States.

Last updated: January 15, 2021