federal hall washington inaugurationImage via Wikimedia Commons from Library of Congress

April 30th 2013, marked the 224th anniversary of the inauguration of our first president under the constitution. Federal Hall National Memorial, located on the site of this historic event, played host to a day of celebrations. Color guards, drum and fife corps, costumed reenactors, and Masons in their Masonic uniforms were all present to honor our first president.

On April 30, 1789, George Washington arrived at Federal Hall (which housed the federal government) to take the oath of office. That Federal Hall building had originally been constructed between 1699 and 1702 as the third location of New York City’s City hall. After ratification of the Constitution, City Hall became Federal Hall, the first capitol building of the United States under the Constitution. The building was renovated and enlarged by Pierre Charles L’Enfant to serve this purpose. The first Congress convened here on March 4, 1789, and elected George Washington as president. On April 30, 1789, Washington ascended to the balcony where he was inaugurated.

federal hall washington's inauguration

For the 224th anniversary, the ceremony took place in the rotunda of Federal Hall National Memorial. The current Federal Hall was constructed in 1842 as the first purposeful built Customs House in the country and is considered to be one of the best surviving examples of classical architecture in New York. It was constructed on the site of the original building which had been demolished in 1812 and sold for scrap.

federal hall washington's inauguration

This year’s reenacment began with welcoming remarks by representatives from the National Park Service and the Masons, who were followed by an invocation from Bishop Samuel Provost. Then the festivities began. A costumed color guard marched through the rotunda followed by a drum and fife group which played Yankee Doodle Dandy. The Pledge of Allegiance was recited followed by the first stanza of the National Anthem, which was written by Francis Scott Key, a Mason. Another drum and fife group led representatives from the St. John’s Lodge No. 1, AYM, in their dressed in the Masonic regalia. Along with them came the inaugural bible.

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The Masons planned the ceremony in Federal Hall, and were out in such large numbers because George Washington was a mason. In fact, he is the only person to have simultaneously been both Grand Master and President of the United States. Additionally, the Washington inaugural bible is owned by the Masons, who loan it to Federal Hall National Memorial so the public are able to view it in its historic context.

The Senate Secretary, Samuel Otis, was handed the bible, while Chancellor Robert Livingston administered the oath of office to George Washington. As happened 224 years ago, Washington veered from the constitutionally prescribed oath ever so slightly by adding in the words ” so help me god,” which set a precedent followed to this day.  After he was sworn in the audience, as previously instructed, he cheered three times “huzzah, huzzah, huzzah” as happened spontaneously in 1789. After George Washington gave his inaugural address, he along with the other costumed reenactors mingled with those who came to watch the ceremony and those who happened into Federal Hall at the right time.

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Though the original Federal Hall was demolished, vestiges of it remain. The piece of the balcony on which Washington stood when he was inaugurated was saved and is now on display in Federal Hall National Memorial. It is pictured above with one of George Washington’s reenactors present at the day’s events. Additionally, Washington’s desk can be found in New York City Hall and pieces of the balcony railing can be found in the New-York Historical Society and Federal Hall National Memorial.

federal hall masons

The 224th Anniversary events concluded with readings of proclamations from Mayor Bloomberg, Speaker Quinn, and Councilwoman Chin, a wreath laying presentation, and a benediction. Once outside, the drum and fife corps played music for a crowd of onlookers who were surprised, but clearly enjoyed the performance.

If you missed this year’s anniversary make sure you mark your calendar for next April 30th, the 225th anniversary, which is bound to be special. In the mean time, stop by Federal Hall National Memorial, to check out its exhibitions, ranger led tours, or just to marvel in its architecture.

Federal Hall National Memorial
26 Wall St New York, NY 10005
Hours: Monday through Friday 9:00-5:00

I would like to thanks the National Park Service Rangers, especially Kevin Daley for his photographs, the Masons from St. John’s Lodge No. 1 for their help and assistance.