The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

“The Sublimest Thing Ever Exhibited in America”: Inauguration Day 1797

The ceremony and celebration of Inauguration Day such as the nation witnessed this past Monday as President Barack Obama began his second term, has been a long cherished tradition in the United States. Of the 57 inaugurations performed over the past nearly 225 years, the last Inauguration Day of the eighteenth century, while it may not have included star-studded performances, stands out as the first orderly change of leadership under the new Constitution as John Adams became the second president.

This historic occasion, and the last held in the temporary capital at Philadelphia, despite the large crowds, was missing one very important person for the incoming president—his wife, Abigail. He drew a picture of the scene in a letter to her the following day, “In the Chamber of the House of Representatives, was a Multitude as great as the Space could contain, and I believe Scarcely a dry Eye but Washingtons. The Sight of the Sun Setting full orbit and another rising tho less Splendid, was a novelty.”

Aware of the enormous responsibility and hardships that the office held, and the relief Washington must have felt at reaching retirement, Adams remarked, “it was made more affecting to me, by the Presence of the General [Washington], whose Countenance was as serene and unclouded as the day. He Seem’d to me to enjoy a Tryumph over me. Methought I heard him think Ay! I am fairly out and you fairly in! See which of Us will be happiest.”

As he set off in uncharted waters, following the beloved Washington, he lamented his family’s absence, in another letter to Abigail two weeks later, “It would have given me great Pleasure to have had some of my Family present, at my Inauguration which was the most affecting and overpowering Scene I ever acted in— I was very unwell had no sleep the night before, and really did not know but I should have fainted in Presence of all the World.— I was in great doubt whether to Say any Thing or not besides repeating the Oath— And now, the World is as silent as the Grave—” With the celebrations over, the real work began. Still, he could confidently tell her, “All Agree that taken all together it was the sublimest Thing ever exhibited in America.” This triumphant moment of democracy in action remains so for our nation today.

permalink | Published: Wednesday, 23 January, 2013, 8:00 AM


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