George Washington's Inauguration

  • Sculptor: John Quincy Adams Ward
  • Granite pedestal by Richard Morris Hunt
  • Dedicated: 1883
  • Medium and size: Bronze (12 feet), granite pedestal (approximately 11.5 feet at front)
  • Location: Wall and Nassau Streets, Federal Hall National Memorial
  • Subway: 4, 5 to Wall Street

Washington Wall St.

Washington Irving on George Washington's First Inauguration, April 1789

Washington's inauguration

Above: Hand-colored engraving by Amos Doolittle of New York’s Federal Hall, published in 1790. The Library of Congress record doesn’t state that this illustrates Washington’s inauguration, but given the date, it seems likely.

Irving summarized the difficulties facing America’s first president, when the nation’s survival was still in serious doubt.

The eyes of the world were upon Washington at the commencement of his administration. He had won laurels in the field. Would they continue to flourish in the cabinet? His position was surrounded with difficulties. Inexperienced in the duties of civil administration, he was to inaugurate a new and untried system of government composed of States and people, as yet a mere experiment, to which some looked forward with buoyant confidence, many with doubt and apprehension.

He had moreover a high-spirited people to manage, in whom a jealous passion for freedom and independence had been strengthened by war and who might bear with impatience even the restraints of self-imposed government. The Constitution which he was to inaugurate had met with vehement opposition when under discussion in the general and State governments. Only three states, New Jersey, Delaware and Georgia, had accepted it unanimously. Several of the most important States had adopted it by a mere majority, five of them under an expressed expectation of specified amendments or modifications, while two States, Rhode Island and North Carolina, still stood aloof.

It is true the irritation produced by the conflict of opinions in the general and State conventions had in a great measure subsided, but circumstances might occur to inflame it anew. A diversity of opinions still existed concerning the new government. Some feared that it would have too little control over the individual States, that the political connection would prove too weak to preserve order and prevent civil strife; others, that it would be too strong for their separate independence and would tend toward consolidation and despotism.

The very extent of the country he was called upon to govern, ten times larger than that of any previous republic, must have pressed with weight upon Washington’s mind. It presented to the Atlantic a front of fifteen hundred miles divided into individual States differing in the forms of their local governments, differing from each other in interests, in territorial magnitudes, in amount of population, in manners, soils, climates and productions, and the characteristics of their several peoples.

Beyond the Alleghenies extended regions almost boundless, as yet for the most part wild and uncultivated, the asylum of roving Indians and restless, discontented white men … Washington Irving, Life of George Washington (1855-59)

Continental Currency


Above: Continental currency from the Revolutionary War, with the depressing motto Exitus in dubio est: “The outcome is far from certain.” (What are those birds doing to each other?) On the disastrous state of American finances immediately following the Revolutionary War, see Hamilton in Central Park.


Above: Continental currency with a more cheerful slogan: “Mind your business.” The sundial and the word “fugio” refer to “Tempus fugit” (Time flies).

John Quincy Adams Ward

As a young man, John Quincy Adams Ward (1830-1910) worked with Henry Kirke Brown on the Washington at Union Square, dedicated in 1856. Far earlier than his contemporaries, War believed American sculptors should present American ideas and be trained in America: he never studied abroad. He was the leading American sculptor for fifty-odd years, known as the "Dean of American Sculpture." Indian Hunter, 1869 (Central Park, near the Mall), established his reputation.

Manhattan has Washington, Greeley, Holley, Conkling, Dodge and Shakespeare, as well as the Seventh Regiment Memorial, 1869(Central Park, West Drive at 67th Street) and the Pilgrim, 1885 (Central Park, east end of the 72nd-Street Traverse). The original sculptures of the New York Stock Exchange pediment were Ward's, but they've been replaced with copies. Brooklyn has Henry Ward Beecher, 1891 (Columbus Park). 

Ward and Contemporary Art

Ward died in 1910, when Rodin and “modern art” such as that shown at the Armory Show in 1913 were becoming more popular. (See Butterfield and Theodore Roosevelt on the Armory Show.)

Frank Jewett Mather, Jr., seems to have had such works in mind when he commented:

Such an art presupposes discipline, clearness of aim, self-knowledge on the part of its creator. It is not my purpose to appraise Ward's singularly even and meritorious production. It seems to me to have a high and especial value in view of prevailing notions that hysteria and the artistic temperament are convertible terms. Ward's life and purposeful well-balanced work are an effective protest against the fallacy that the life artistic ranges between overt melodrama and inward tragedy. -- "Address of Frank Jewett Mather, Jr.," John Quincy Adams Ward, Memorial Addresses Delivered Before the Century Association, Nov. 5, 1910(1911), pp. 5-6

Commenting on Ward’s Washington, sculptor Lorado Taftnoted that Ward was not attempting to convey a naturalistic portrait, and that the finished work is the better for it.
Foremost among the many interpretations [of Washington in sculpture], according to not a few good judges, including prominent members of the profession, stands this noble figure by Mr. Ward. A realistic treatment of the subject was by no means desirable. Houdon gave us this, combined with a mastery of curious skill. Mr. Ward shows us not the intimate, domestic Washington of Mount Vernon, nor even the actual - shall we say casual? - man seen by the few who stood nearest the inaugural, but the great, legendary figure toward whom the whole country turned in those days, and whom the years have further consecrated, glorifying even as they veil. If our very friends are largely the product of our imaginations, how much more is a great public character but a symbol on which to hang the attributes of our likes or our dislikes! We owe thanks to Mr. Ward for such a “symbol.” This quiet, impressive figure, supported by the fasces and enriched by the sweep of the great military cloak, lifts its hand in the simple gesture which betokens authority guided by moderation and intelligence. It has in it the essentials of Washington, while the peculiarities, real or imaginary, are left out. The statue is the greater for the well-weighed omission. -- Lorado Taft, History of American Sculpture (1903), pp. 225-6

Cross References

Greenough's Washington

Above: Horatio Greenough’s George Washington, 1840, shows Washington as Zeus. Washington’s controversial naked torso doomed the piece to a peripatetic existence. In 1843 it was banished from the Capitol rotunda to the East Lawn of the Capitol. In 1908 it was shifted to the Smithsonian Castle, and in 1964 to the Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History), where it anchors the second floor exhibition galleries. (Photo: Wikipedia / Wknight94)

Copyright (c) 2013 Dianne L. Durante