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At the nation’s first presidential transfer of power, George Washington was ‘radiant’

Engraving from 1869 commemorating the first inauguration of President George Washington on April 30, 1789. (iStock)

There’s a famous story about George Washington and King George III at the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783.

As commander in chief of the Continental Army, Washington had led his troops to an unlikely victory over the British Empire. Many assumed he would hold onto his power, becoming a new American monarch, but he insisted he would resign his commission and retire to his home in Virginia. When King George III learned of Washington’s plans, he remarked, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

The story isn’t entirely accurate. King George III did tell the artist Benjamin West that Washington would be “the greatest character of the age” — but he did so 14 years later, in 1797, upon hearing Washington would step down from the presidency in America’s first peaceful transfer of power.

More than two centuries later, President Trump would be ineligible for a similar assessment. He has still not conceded that President-elect Joe Biden beat him in a fair election, and two weeks ago incited thousands of his supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol as lawmakers met to certify Biden’s win. Still, he has maintained that come Wednesday, there will be a peaceful transfer of power, just as there has always been in the United States.

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There was no precedent for Washington’s remarkable decision to step down after two terms. But the truth is he couldn’t wait to leave. In fact, he had wanted to step down after one term, and even went as far as asking James Madison to write him a farewell address before being convinced to stay on for four more years. He ran unopposed.

Everyone loved George Washington, until he became president

Those four more years were awful. He was constantly stuck in the middle of bitter arguments between the burgeoning political parties and was regularly insulted in partisan newspapers. He negotiated a treaty with Britain that was massively unpopular. And then there was the Whiskey Rebellion, during which he very nearly took up arms against his own citizens.

Plus, he suffered severe illnesses, and his properties were poorly managed by his family. He became convinced that he wasn’t long for this world and wouldn’t last another term. (He was right, dying in 1799.)

So he brushed the dust off the earlier farewell address Madison had drafted, updated it with his more recent thoughts and sent it off to his friend Alexander Hamilton for revision. Hamilton smartly removed the bitter digs Washington had made toward his critics and gave the speech a timeless, for-the-ages feel. In the meantime, Federalists and Democratic Republicans waited to see what Washington would do before throwing their hats in the ring for the 1796 presidential election.

Washington waited until Sept. 19 to release his farewell address to the public. In it, he urges Americans against forming political parties, and to “always exalt the just pride of patriotism, more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.”

The parties responded by kicking their campaigns into high gear for the country’s first contested election. When the electoral college voted, Vice President John Adams was the narrow victor, and his rival Jefferson became his veep.

Until the 1930s, incoming presidents weren’t inaugurated until March 4 of the next year, so Washington had an even longer lame-duck period than presidents do now. As biographer Ron Chernow put it, Washington “endured an excruciating round of farewell parties, balls, dinners and receptions.” Other biographers note that Washington loved both dressing up and dancing, and that some of the tributes to him were so touching “his emotions were too powerful to be concealed.”

It was always going to be tough to be the first president to follow Washington; but Adams’s pettiness and self-consciousness made it even tougher. On the morning of the inauguration, Washington walked to the ceremony alone and dressed in black. Those in attendance noted Washington looked “radiant,” happier than he ever had before. Adams arrived in a fancy new coach, bewigged and be-ruffled but looking underslept and out of sorts.

He later wrote Washington looked “as serene and unclouded as the day,” which worried him. “He seemed to me to enjoy a triumph over me. Methought I heard him say, ‘Ay! I am fairly out and you fairly in! See which one of us will be happiest!'”

Washington introduced Adams and made a tear-jerker of a goodbye speech. Then Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth administered the oath of office for Adams. Adams made his inaugural address, complimenting his predecessor and echoing Washington’s anti-partisan, country-above-all sentiments of the previous fall. (Spoiler alert: That didn’t last.)

At the ceremony’s conclusion, Washington insisted that President Adams and Vice President Jefferson exit before he did, since he was now merely a citizen and was thus outranked. As biographer Harrison Clark put it, “The transfer of power was thus symbolically complete.”

Four years later, Adams didn’t indulge President-elect Jefferson with the inaugural pageantry Washington had bestowed upon him. No, he didn’t falsely claim the election was stolen from him; nor did he amass supporters to storm the Capitol. But he certainly wasn’t happy about becoming America’s first one-term president. On the day of Jefferson’s inauguration, he bolted out of the capital city at 4 a.m., skipping the ceremony altogether.

Trump is also expected to leave Washington Wednesday morning before Biden’s inauguration. Adams left by horse. Trump is expected to leave via Air Force One.

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