Henningsen: The first inaugural

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(HOST)  As President Obama completes his first hundred days in office, commentator Vic Henningsen looks back at the moment when George Washington began his, on this day in 1789.

(HENNINGSEN) America’s first presidential inauguration was a festive occasion for everyone except the new president.  George Washington was anxious, even reluctant.  He knew that people were more enthusiastic about him than about the new federal experiment he would head. And, better than anyone, he understood that the United States was a deeply divided country with an uncertain future. Surrounded by cheering crowds and beaming officials, he wrote, he walked to his inauguration with feelings not unlike those of a man proceeding to his own execution.

In 1789, the country was divided into three distinct sections: north, south, and – over the Appalachian barrier – west, each significantly different from the others in its economic and social institutions.  To the extent that there was an aspect of the government that promoted unity, it was the postal service; but there were only 75 post offices. Americans were not comfortable thinking nationally:  the word "national" was so suspect it was omitted from the Constitution and James Madison would be rebuked for using it in an early congressional debate.  Indeed, as Washington took the oath of office, two states – North Carolina and Rhode Island – were out of the union, both claiming the other states had seceded from them!

America’s currency was worthless; combined state and national debts amounted to over fifteen trillion of today’s dollars.  Internationally things looked similarly bleak. Much of what little money the government did take in went to ransom American ships and their crews from the Barbary Pirates of North Africa. Confident that the American experiment would soon fail, Great Britain refused to evacuate its forts on the Great Lakes. Spain refused to let American farmers in the west ship their goods through New Orleans, hoping to detach them from the new U.S.  And, within months, France would experience a series of upheavals that would culminate in the storming of the Bastille and the world-changing French Revolution, which in turn would threaten to disrupt the American experiment.

The old Confederation lacked both the political will and the economic power to protect and further its interests; it wasn’t clear the new federal government could do better.  

Had Washington been able to discern the future, he might not have taken the oath.  Over the next decade the United States would experience an armed rebellion by tax resisters; an unofficial war with France; the repression of civil liberties by a political party attempting to retain power; and the nastiest election in its history. Washington himself would be personally vilified by those who twenty years earlier had showered him with praise.  "As to you sir" wrote Thomas Paine, "treacherous in private friendship . . . and a hypocrite in public life, the world will be puzzled to decide whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any."  

Today President Obama has many challenges, but it’s not clear they’re any worse than the ones Washington faced – and inspired his country to master.

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