The President Without Precedent
Students explore the inauguration and administrations of George Washington.
By using the activities of this lesson, the students will:
- explore the time period and events surrounding Washington's inauguration;
- demonstrate how Washington set a precedent for each action he took
as the American republic's new president;
- compare and contrast the traditions and events of the 1789 inaugural
with the most recent inauguration.
Washington was well aware that each action he took as the nation's first
president would determine how the nation and the office of president would
be perceived from that moment on. Washington was elected by a unanimous
vote, and he was tremendously admired by citizens of the new republic.
Washington traveled from his farm at Mount Vernon, Virginia, in 1789
overland to New York, the temporary capitol of the United States. There,
he took the oath of office as stated in Article II of the new federal
Constitution. He delivered a short
but important ten-minute inaugural address. He then proceeded to consult
with members of his newly-appointed cabinet about how the duties of the
presidency should be carried out on a day-to-day basis.
- Washington took on the office of president out of loyalty for the
nation he helped form, but he was a reluctant first president. To learn
more about his reservations, visit one or more of the following sites:
- After research in the library or a class discussion, have students
brainstorm verbally or develop a written paragraph that illustrates
why Washington may have had reservations about becoming the first president.
For an alternative approach, students might want to write in a diary
format as though they are with Washington riding to his inauguration
from Virginia to New York.
Possible students responses may include the following:
- He was nervous. He knew that each action he took would be scrutinized
by the American people, by his political enemies, and by historians
to come, as well as by presidents to follow, who would look to his
example for guidance.
- He wanted to stay a farmer at Mount Vernon. He felt that his experiences
as a farmer were not sufficient to act as the captain of the ship
of state, especially in the wake of the controversy over the ratification
of the Constitution.
- He was tired. Washington had devoted most of his adult life to
public service. At age 57, he was in poor health, even though he
was only three years older than the average age for presidents at
- On the Web, find Washington's first
and second inaugural
addresses. The second is famous because it is so short. How does it
compare with the second inaugural addresses of other past presidents?
Investigate other inaugural speeches at the Project
Bartleby Web site.
As students read the first inaugural address, ask them to point
out examples from the speech that show Washington is aware that he
is setting important national precedents. Also, do students sense
any reluctance on Washington's part to take office, based on what
they read? (Note: students may want to read the speeches in groups,
dividing up unfamiliar vocabulary terms as they encounter them.)
- Washington's exit from office was as important as his entrance. Although
he was urged to seek a third term, he refused. Ask students to read
sections of Washington's Farewell Address. Why did he decide to retire?
Why was his retirement an important precedent for the young republic?
(Washington's refusal to seek a third term in office signaled that
Americans should not seek to elect a "ruler for life," no matter how
popular, and reinforced the goal of a peaceful transfer of power in
the infant republic. No president served more than two terms until
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1932-1945); following Roosevelt's terms
in office, the Constitution was amended so that future presidents
were limited to two terms by law.)
The lesson may be evaluated through the following means:
- the historical accuracy of student writings, which can be awarded
a number of points based on the students' thinking skills, originality,
and use of historical information;
- the student's contributions to whole-class discussion and group work
reading Washington's speeches.
- Washington toured the United States after his inauguration. Students
may want to research that trip and describe the people and political
issues with which Washington had to deal as he explored his new republic.
- Research the lives of people who were other important "firsts": first
person to walk on the moon, first woman Cabinet member, first surgeon
to perform a heart transplant, etc. What personality traits do these
people share with Washington? Students might create a "Firsts Hall of
Fame" to display at school.