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National Archives

Public Papers - 1989 - April

Remarks at the Bicentennial Celebration of George Washington's Inauguration in New York, New York

1989-04-30

Thank you, Senator, and Chief Justice Burger, Secretary Lujan, Ambassador Pickering, Archbishop Iakovos, Senators Moynihan and Lautenberg, and Mayor Koch, fellow citizens of the United States. Two centuries ago, standing here, a man took an oath before a new nation and the eyes of God -- an oath that I, like 40 before me, have since had the privilege to take. Everyone here today can still feel the pulse of history, the charge and power of that great moment in the genesis of this nation. Here the first Congress was in session, beginning a tradition of representative government that has endured for 200 years. Here the representatives of 13 Colonies struggled to find balance, order, and unity between them. And here our first President issued a solemn address.

One who was there wrote: ``This great man was agitated and embarrassed more than ever he was by the leveled cannon or pointed musket. He trembled and, several times, could scarce make out to read.'' Well, as Representative Boggs pointed out, who wouldn't have felt some trepidation, undertaking a task which has never been tried in the world's history?

And on that day, Washington spoke of his conflict of emotions. He admitted his anxieties and deficiencies, as honest men will. But then, as his first official act, he turned to God fervently for strength. For he knew that the advancement of America, while it might rely on its Presidents, would surely depend on providence.

How unlikely it must have seemed then that we might become united States -- how uncertain that a Republic could be hewn out of the wilderness of competing interests! How awesome the prospect must have seemed to the man charged with guiding the new Republic made possible by his leadership in battle.

But George Washington defined and shaped this office. It was Washington's vision, his balance of power and restraint as he watched over the Constitutional Convention in 1787, that gave the delegates enough confidence to vest powers in a Chief Executive unparalleled in any freely elected government, before or since. It was Washington's vision, his balance, his integrity that made the Presidency possible. The Constitution was, and remains, a majestic document. But it was a blueprint, an outline for democratic government, in need of a master builder to ensure its foundations were strong. Based on that document, Washington created a living, functioning government. He brought together men of genius, a team of giants, with strong and competing views. He harnessed and directed their energies. And he established a precedent for 40 Presidents to follow.

For all of the turmoil and transformation of the last 200 years, there is a great constancy to this office and this Republic. So much of the vision of that first great President is reflected in the paths pursued by modern Presidents.

Today we reaffirm ethics, honor, and strength in government. Two centuries ago, in his first Inaugural Address, Washington spoke of a government ``exemplified by all the attributes which can win the affections of its citizens and command the respect of the world.'' Today, we say that leaders are not elected to quarrel but to govern. On that spring day in 1789, Washington pledged that ``no party animosities will misdirect the comprehensive and equal eye which ought to watch over this great assemblance of communities and interests.''

Today, we seek a new engagement in the lives of others, believing that success is not measured by the sum of our possessions, our positions, or our professions, but by the good we do for others. Two hundred years ago today, Washington said there exists ``in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage.'' And so, today we speak of values. At his inauguration, Washington said that ``the foundations of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality.'' And over the last 200 years, we've moved from the revolution of democracy to the evolution of peace and prosperity.

But so much remains constant; so much endures: our faith in freedom -- for individuals, freedom to choose, for nations, self-determination and democracy; our belief in fairness -- equal standards, equal opportunity, the chance for each of us to achieve, on our own merits, to the very limit of our ambitions and potential; our enduring strength -- abroad, a strength our allies can count on and our adversaries must respect, and at home, a sense of confidence, of purpose, in carrying forward our nation's work.

My starting point has been a respect for American institutions -- for Congress, and I salute the members of the House and Senate with us today; for the judiciary, and through Chief Justice Burger, I pay my respects to the judiciary; for the executive branch, represented here today by Secretary Lujan and Ambassador Pickering; and for government at all levels -- and a firm belief in maintaining the powers of the Presidency. The Presidency, then as now, in oath and in office, derives from the strength and the will of the people.

George Washington, residing at Mount Vernon, felt himself summoned by his country to serve his country -- not to reign, not to rule, but to serve. It was the noblest of impulses because democracy brought a new definition of nobility. And it means that a complete life, whether in the 18th or 20th century, must involve service to others. Today, just as Washington heard the voice of his country calling him to public service, a new generation must heed that summons; more must hear that call.

And today we stand -- free Americans, citizens in an experiment of freedom that has brought sustained and unprecedented progress and blessings in abundance. As we dedicate a museum of American constitutional government, let us together rededicate ourselves to the principles to which Washington gave voice 200 years ago. Let our motivation derive from the strength and character of our forefathers, from the blood of those who have died for freedom, and from the promise of the future that posterity deserves. Let us commit ourselves to the renewal of strong, united, representative government in these United States of America.

God bless you, and may God forever bless this great nation of ours. Thank you all very, very much.

Note: The President spoke at 12:53 p.m. outside of Federal Hall. In his remarks, he referred to Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato; Warren Burger, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; Thomas R. Pickering, Ambassador to the United Nations; Archbishop Demetrios A. Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America; Senators Daniel P. Moynihan and Frank Lautenberg; and Edward Koch, mayor of New York City. Following his remarks, the President returned to Washington, DC.

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