President George Washington Calls the Senate Into Session For His Second Inauguration

The only call into session for a Washington inauguration we can find in private hands

Key Facts

  • One of only two such calls known to still exist
  • A crucial letter showing the President communicating directly with Congress
  • The inauguration was held in Independence Hall
  • This set a precedent for method of calling the Senate to an inauguration

The success of the American Revolution was a long-shot, as an unorganized group of farmers took on the greatest military power of the day. Its leader Washington had been a minor officer in the British Army over a decade earlier, yet he was the best the Americans had, and though a very wealthy landowner with everything to lose, he agreed to lead. Victories were few and far between for the Americans, and at times the army under his command was reduced to a few thousand dedicated but ill-armed, ill-fed and ill-housed men. There were a number of moments during the Revolutionary War when it actually seemed over except for British mopping up operations, and it was only the determination of Washington that held the American cause and army together. The success of the Revolution was an astonishing achievement for Washington. Afterwards, he had every opportunity to become a king or dictator, but he refused, instead supporting ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

Certain matters touching the public good requiring that the Senate shall be convened on Monday the 4 instant

Washington was Inaugurated as President for the first time on April 30, 1789, in front of New York’s Federal Hall. He had not wanted to be chief executive, and took the job reluctantly, lamenting that in assuming the presidency, he felt “like a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.” With the inaugural ceremony complete, the crowd below let out three big cheers and President Washington returned to the Senate chamber to deliver his brief Inaugural address. In it, he hoped the American people would find liberty and happiness under “a government instituted by themselves.” He realized full well that he would be setting important precedents in the office, and saw it as his responsibility to set positive ones, saying “As the first of everything, in our situation, will serve to establish a precedent, it is devoutly wished on my part that these precedents be fixed on true principles.”

Washington’s first important presidential determination was to use as an advisory cabinet the principal Federal officials he would select, and to fill the cabinet with men of stature and character, not just supporters or sycophants. These included Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State and Alexander Hamilton as Treasury Secretary. In fact, a conflict between these two quickly created for Washington the necessity of determining whether the executive under the brand new Constitution was a passive position, as many assumed, or one of active leadership. Jefferson’s opinion was that the Federal government and its head could only exercise powers specifically granted by the Constitution, while Hamilton saw the Constitution as implying powers which the government could utilize for beneficial ends. Washington agreed with Hamilton and accepted the concept that the Constitution allowed actions that it did not expressly authorize. This decision proved a sound one and helped make the nation’s future prosperity possible. Washington also used national power in the Whiskey Rebellion to establish the primacy of Federal laws.  All of these actions set a strong precedent for presidential leadership.

Washington was re-elected in 1792. France declared war on Great Britain on February 1, 1793, so by the time of his second inauguration, He was aware that hostilities were brewing; news of the war declaration was speeding across the Atlantic at that very moment. The U.S. now faced a thorny political problem, as France was America’s ally during the Revolutionary War, yet Great Britain’s financial support was important to American ship-owners and businessmen. It was in this tension-laden atmosphere, in which actions in Europe would surely have momentous yet uncertain consequences in the U.S., that Washington’s second term would begin.

The inaugural ceremony would take place before the U.S. Senate and in the Senate Chamber, but for this to happen it would first be necessary to call the Senate into session for inauguration day. There were 15 states in the Union at this time, and therefore 30 U.S. senators, but only 17 were in Philadelphia to receive a call into session and be able to attend the history-making moment. Thus, in all likelihood, only 17 Senators received letters commanding their presence that day. This is one of those original letters.

Manuscript Letter Signed as President, Philadelphia, March 1, 1793, to Rhode Island’s U.S. Senator Theodore Foster. “Certain matters touching the public good requiring that the Senate shall be convened on Monday the 4 instant, you are desired to attend at the Senate Chamber in Philadelphia on that day then and there to receive and deliberate on such communications as shall be made to you on my part.” John Fitzgerald relates in his work “The Writings of George Washington” that “This extra session of the Senate convened and adjourned on March 4.”

The second inauguration of George Washington as President of the United States took place in Philadelphia, in the Senate Chamber of that part of Independence Hall known as Congress Hall, on March 4, 1793. The inauguration marked the commencement of the second four-year term for not only Washington as President, but John Adams as Vice President, and was the first such ceremony to take place on the date fixed by the Congress for inaugurations. Before an assembly of congressmen, cabinet officers, judges of the federal and district courts, foreign officials, and a gathering of Philadelphians, Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court William Cushing administered the oath of office, becoming the first Supreme Court justice to swear in a president. Though his oath of office took place indoors, the sun shone in Philadelphia that day, as only seems fitting, with Washington being sworn in the very building where independence had been declared and he had been named to command the American army just 18 years earlier. Temperatures were mild with a high of 61°F. Washington also delivered an inaugural address in which he stated:?“I am again called upon by the voice of my country to execute the functions of its Chief Magistrate. When the occasion proper for it shall arrive, I shall endeavor to express the high sense I entertain of this distinguished honor, and of the confidence which has been reposed in me by the people. Previous to the execution of any official act of the President, the Constitution requires an oath of office. This oath I am now about to take, and in your presence...”

In his second term, President Washington promoted the concepts of American nationalism and unity. He quickly determined that the U. S. should be neutral in the European quarrel, and on April 22, 1793, issued a proclamation to that effect. The following year, the Jay Treaty settled some outstanding issues with the British and thus reduced the chance of the U.S. getting entangled in the European war. Towards the end of this term, he refused to seek another. This proved to be another valuable precedent, as seeing his example, future presidents knew that one day they would go home and resume life as private citizens. Washington believed that public virtue led to prosperity, and as President conducted himself with pure motives and complete honesty. His virtues were so pronounced that they actually influenced the way people thought about the concepts of leadership and greatness. In setting this example and high standard, Washington made it very difficult for his successors to materially deviate.

Our research has turned up only one other such letter that demonstrably still exists. There are none listed in auction records over the past 35 years, and we know of none in private hands otherwise. There is one, Sen. Roger Sherman’s copy, in the Massachusetts Historical Society. The Papers of Washington project believes that there may be a few others in institutions somewhere, but they are not specifically aware of any. Nor did they know of any in private hands. They took a copy of this letter as an example for the others.