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Presentation Inaugurations: Stepping into History

The First Inauguration

George Washington set a precedent for future presidents when he delivered the first inaugural address on April 30, 1789. Washington used the opportunity to discuss some of his positions, including his refusal to take a salary while in office:

"When I was first honored with a call into the service of my country...the light in which I contemplated my duty required that I should renounce every pecuniary compensation. ...being still under the impressions which produced it, I must decline as inapplicable to myself any share in the personal emoluments which may be indispensably included in a permanent provision for the executive department, and must accordingly pray that the pecuniary estimates... be limited to such actual expenditures as the public good may be thought to require."

George Washington's first inaugural address

The rejection of a salary despite its inclusion in the Constitution did not become a common part of subsequent inaugural addresses. However, George Washington's religious invocation did start a presidential trend:

"[I]t would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe...No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States."

Religious references, ranging from secular invocations such as Jefferson's "Infinite Power" and Martin Van Buren's "Divine Being" to a mention of "Almighty God," have appeared in almost every president's inaugural address. What do these religious references contribute to the inaugural ceremony? Why are they so common? What do they tell you about the nation?

The Bible used in George Washington's inaugural oath has appeared in other inaugurations. In his 1989 inaugural address, George H.W. Bush noted,

"I have just repeated word for word the oath taken by George Washington 200 years ago, and the Bible on which I placed my hand is the Bible on which he placed his. It is right that the memory of Washington be with us today...because Washington remains the Father of our Country. And he would, I think, be gladdened by this day: for today is the concrete expression of a stunning fact; our continuity these 200 years since our government began."