On April 30, 1789, George Washington was inaugurated at Federal Hall in New York City. Thousands of people gathered there for the event.
Even though some of the people had seen Washington before, none had ever seen a president of the United States before, since he was the first in history. Until then, they’d known only kings and royal governors. What would a president look like? How would he dress? How would he act?
Washington did not dress like a king — no crown or purple robes; he wore a respectable dark-brown homespun suit, with white silk stockings and silver shoe buckles, and a dress sword. He chose the suit because it was made in the USA (Connecticut), and he wanted to encourage American industry.
He went out onto the second-story balcony so the crowd could see him. Unlike the politicians of today, Washington did not smile and wave at the folks, lest he appear undignified (some say that’s why people in those days didn’t smile in photographs). Instead, he bowed several times, with his hand on his heart.
After he was sworn in, the cry went up: “Long live George Washington, president of the United States!” There was shouting, cheering, bells ringing, and cannon booming. It was a thrilling moment.
But the new president himself was not thrilled. He really did not want the office and its honors, and said he felt like he was going to his execution. One eyewitness said that he looked very serious, almost sad.
Why did he feel that way? To understand that, you have to understand the man and his times.
The Reluctant General
Washington didn’t want to be president any more than he had wanted to be commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. The chances of beating the British in the Revolutionary War were not good at all. Britain was a world power, and it sent thousands of professional troops and a huge fleet of warships to overpower the upstart Americans. Just about everyone thought the British would win the war very quickly.
Britain had professional soldiers. Washington had a brand-new army of volunteers. Britain had plenty of food and supplies. Washington did not have enough food, uniforms, or weapons. Washington did have traitors, like General Benedict Arnold. He also had many deserters (soldiers who left the army without permission), and a Congress that wouldn’t even pay the soldiers the wages they were promised. Washington had no desire to lead the losing team.
When he was forced to be the general of the American soldiers, he turned to Patrick Henry and said, “Remember, Mr. Henry, what I now tell you: From the day I enter upon command of the American armies, I date my fall and the ruin of my reputation.”
His prediction almost came true at the crossing of the Delaware River. Washington’s most famous victory was nearly his biggest disaster and the end of the American Revolution. The British had hired German soldiers to fight for them. Washington planned to attack them by surprise at Trenton. The Americans would cross the river overnight on December 24, 1776, and catch the enemy off guard before dawn. But a winter snowstorm delayed the trip, and they didn’t get into position on the other side until it was already daylight. The element of surprise seemed lost.
Washington sat down and thought seriously of turning back. If he did, it would be a bitter defeat. If he went ahead with the battle and lost and his army was captured, it would be the end of the war. He decided to give the order to attack, and the gamble paid off.
(Excerpted from Mishpacha Jr., Issue 749)
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