By Frank Ceresi and Carol McMains
"I Do Solemnly Swear . . . "
It is with these words that each American President since George Washington has taken the Oath of Office. With his hand on the Bible and eyes fixed squarely on the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, every four years the President swears to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America." With those words, the President assumes an enormous responsibility. That responsibility is to "simply" guide our nation, indeed the hopes and dreams of our citizenry, for four years . . . through peace and prosperity as well as turmoil and war.
Since we are a nation that celebrates its history and relies upon tradition to carry on our democratic ideals, we wondered about the very first presidential Bible used at the very first Inauguration . . . the Bible that was used by our first President George Washington. We know that great documents outlining the form of our government are safely entombed at the National Archives and the Library of Congress and that Washington's own papers can be found at his home at Mount Vernon, but what about the Bible that was used at the first Inauguration? Was it an old Washington family heirloom? Was its use required when the General assumed the presidency? Has it been used by every President since Washington? Most importantly, does Washington's Bible exist today?
Is a Bible required? The Constitution of the United States makes no mention of the use of a Bible in the taking of the oath, nor is it even required that the ceremony be public. Yet from Washington's first Inauguration in 1789 to the present, almost every President in a very public manner has placed his hand upon a Bible and, while raising his other hand towards the heavens, repeats the Oath of Office. And . . . before the eyes of a world that watches the ceremony unfold . . . the President-elect becomes the leader of the free world. Thus, though the use of a Bible is certainly not constitutionally required, it has become the focal point of every presidential Inauguration and the image of the taking of the presidential oath is certainly incomplete without it.
Does the first presidential Bible used by George Washington exist and has it been used by each President? The simple answer to that question is that the Bible certainly does exist and though the Bible has been used by several Presidents it has not been used by each succeeding President. In fact, unfortunately several of the presidential Bibles, particularly from the 19th century, have never been unearthed and there is even some suggestion that the Bibles themselves were not used by every President who took the Oath of Office. However, how exceptionally appropriate it is that the Bible Washington used -- our nation's first inaugural Bible -- is not lost and, like so many other threads that make up the historical fabric of our country, how this magnificent book came to be used well over 200 years ago is an unusual story in itself.
The First Inauguration
In April of 1789, New York City was a small and plain community that can more accurately be described as a large rural village. In fact, it wouldn't be for an additional 50 years that its population would exceed that of its southern neighbor, the city that was considered the most vital in our country during the late 1700's, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. However, during April of that eventful year, New York City claimed the historical distinction of hosting our nation's very first presidential Inauguration. The preparation for the ceremony itself had been painstaking and deliberate in almost all regards. In fact, George Washington had traveled from his home in Mount Vernon, Virginia several days prior to the April 30th Inaugural Day on a route that had been preplanned, mapped out and studied for its effect.
For several days up until that moment of the taking of the oath, all of the detailed planning for the pomp and circumstance that would envelop the majesty of the event went without a hitch. On April 14th of 1789, a special Congressional courier dutifully rode his horse to Mount Vernon to deliver the news to Washington that the Inauguration would take place on April 30th at New York City. Within a few days, Washington began his journey north by horse but even before he crossed the Potomac River, a stone's throw from his mansion, multitudes of well wishers greeted him peacefully and reverently. Historians tell us that the reception in his own backyard was the start of an ovation that continued for the 300-mile journey. Moreover, it became more and more of a celebration as the 57-year-old war hero trudged northward.
It was a joyous trip attendant with cannon salutes, fireworks, lavish banquets, marching men, waving women, and children who broke out in song and dance. After all, who can blame these patriots from the Revolutionary War for their joy because with Washington the acclaim was as much for the man as for his office. He had been America's first war hero; he had been the idol of the soldiers under his charge and of a populace recently freed and independent; his skill at compromise at the first Constitutional Convention was greatly responsible for our nation's early success; and he had borrowed $30,000 against his own property to pay for the salaries of his nation's Army when the first Congressional Congress couldn't raise the money itself! In short, George Washington was already a triumphant figure as he slowly made his way towards the inaugural event.
Meanwhile, as the President-elect enjoyed what can only be called an elaborate one man parade, the statesmen in New York City deliberated on the most minute details of the inaugural event itself. In fact, it is said that the increasing fervor of the throngs of people from town to town unnerved Washington to such a degree that he sent word ahead to his Vice President John Adams that he hoped and prayed that the Inauguration itself would go forward without a hitch. As the big day approached, decisions were confirmed on who was to sit where, on how Washington himself was to be addressed, on what color the drapes and curtains would be, on where the furniture at the great Senate Chamber of Federal Hall on Wall Street would be arranged, on every single detail involving the day's decoration except for one . . . no one, from Washington and Adams on, gave nary a thought about the Bible that would form the springboard for our very first Inauguration!
Perhaps Washington, traveling from Virginia, assumed that Adams or his Congressional brethren would have provided the Bible. Or perhaps those from New York City assumed that Washington would provide one of his many personal Bibles for the great event. Who knows? Have you ever made a business trip and forgotten your alarm clock? Maybe it was as simple as that! For whatever the reason, the fact remains the same, for once the big day dawned and the eyes of the newly formed nation rested solely upon the historical event at Federal Hall, the almost President and assorted dignitaries were about to make an unwelcome discovery.
April 30, 1789
Inauguration Day was clear and cool when it finally arrived. Foreign ambassadors and statesmen alike jammed their way into Federal Hall. Townspeople mingled with their neighbors from other states to crowd the roads leading to Federal Hall and Wall Street itself. Historians tell us that at precisely 11:00 a.m., the Senate door swung open and the House Speaker, escorted by three Senators and Representatives from the House, went downstairs to a waiting carriage. Suddenly, it is said that Washington himself appeared at the door, exchanged nervous greetings with fellow statesmen, paused only a moment to acknowledge the cheers from his countrymen, and entered the Hall for the swearing in.
Once inside Federal Hall, we are told that the President-elect, standing regally and tall, accepted the applause of the joint Congress. He glanced around for his Vice President, John Adams, sat down on a beautiful crimson chair and said simply, "I am ready to proceed." Tension wasn't in the air . . . it was the air!
However, there was an awkward pause and then there was confusion! Though reports are sketchy at best regarding how long of a period of time confusion reigned, we know that the cause of the confusion was the missing Bible. What a scene it must have been as members of the first Congress, with ashen faces, searched through the building in consternation and without success. Perhaps many of those present felt that without a Bible the oath could not be administered nor Washington even proclaimed our first President! Soon, however, New York State Chancellor, Robert R. Livingston, a fellow Mason, remembered that his local meeting house, St. John's Lodge, housed a beautiful altar Bible and, importantly, that Bible was a short few hundred feet down the block. After a quick trip down the street, the historic Bible was provided and, in fact, carefully placed upon a red velvet cushion. Everyone relaxed, calm prevailed, and the stage was set.
Immediately, Chancellor Livingston administered the Oath of Office to Washington. When the oath was completed, Washington added the phrase, "I swear, so help me God!" and, bending down, kissed the open Book. While Chancellor Livingston loudly and joyously proclaimed Washington our nation's first President, one Joseph Morton, Master of St. John's Lodge, stepped forward and carefully folded down a corner of the open page, thus preserving a record of the random Bible opening where Washington had rested his left hand. Interestingly, fate sometimes does funny things, for the random selection fell open to Chapter 49 of the Book of Genesis, the book that Biblical scholars remind us that literally means "the book of new beginnings."
The scene that ensued was bedlam as the crowd broke into a storm of cheers. Livingston reportedly said, "It is done." and then turned to the crowd and shouted, "Long live George Washington, President of the United States!" Grown men cried and shouted and joyous celebration was the order of the day. Thursday, April 30, 1789, had been a great day, indeed, and a great era was born. However, one must wonder whether or not the day would have ended on such a high note had it not been discovered, at the very last minute, that the ornate Bible -- now known as President George Washington's inaugural Bible -- rested in a small room at St. John's Lodge, No. 1, a few short yards from Federal Hall.
The Bible Today
So what happened to this historic Bible? One would have thought it might have ended up somewhere in the White House. But, no, that permanent presidential home wasn't even a thought in 1789. It turns out that very shortly after the Inauguration the members of the Masonic St. Johns Lodge, No. 1, inserted a special silk page into the Bible to earmark the very place where President Washington rested his hand. Thankfully, from the beginning the Masons have had a keen sense of history, for the Bible has been carefully preserved under their dominion for well over 200 years in New York City. They certainly recognize that it is a hidden National Treasure and regularly invite the public to gaze at its splendor. If you aren't going to New York anytime soon, just turn on your television on January 20th to see the Inauguration of George W. Bush, our first President of the 21st Century, for he will be using . . . you guessed it, George Washington's inaugural Bible!