Benjamin Harrison and the Washington Centennial. And Me.

The 100th anniversary of George Washington’s Inaugural Centennial in New York City was a very big deal.

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George Washington takes the Presidential Oath of Office in 1789.

The Inauguration of George Washington

George Washington was elected unanimously and with no opposition.  Everyone was enthusiastic about the new President of the United States. Therefore, one can safely assume that it was no surprise to the former General when a delegation from a newly elected Congress came to Mount Vernon to inform him of his election. Washington had already written his speech of response.

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A famous depiction of Washington receiving accolades  in Trenton, NJ en route to his inauguration. Note the white horse.

But arrangements had to be made, not only for the inaugural ceremonies slated to be held in New York (which had donated itself as the temporary capital), but for George Washington’s personal needs as well. He required sufficient housing – with a ballroom large enough to hold a hundred guests. He needed sufficient servants. The handful he planned to bring from Mount Vernon were not nearly enough. And he needed all the accouterments that Mrs. Washington would require, which included the needs of her two young grandchildren they were raising. They also wouldn’t dream of jumping the gun as it were, and overtly plan ahead.

Transportation and communication were both long and arduous. Washington was not inaugurated until late April of 1789. Mrs. Washington, additional house servants and the children would not arrive until some weeks later.

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George Washington arrives in lower Manhattan, where he is greeted by the throngs!

The new President’s journey between northern Virginia and New York City took a long time, not merely due to distance, but to his enormous popularity and the momentousness of the event. Every town and city along the way wanted to host him, to invite him, to proclaim him, to present him with honors and gifts.  It would have been rude to decline.

Thus, by the time of his arrival in what is now the Battery section of lower Manhattan, the arrangements had all been put into place. NY Governor George Clinton was on hand to officially greet him. When Washington formally took the oath of office on April 30, a huge crowd came to bear witness to important history.

The Benjamin Harrison Connection

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President Benjamin Harrison, grandson of a President, was inaugurated on March 4, 1889.

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A centennial parade souvenir.

Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901) was born three decades after George Washington’s death, and in 1889, had recently been inaugurated as President, and thus a successor in the office begun by Washington.

There was also a personal connection of sorts between Harrison and Washington. Benjamin Harrison was the grandson of President William Henry Harrison, who filled the same office for only a month in 1841. Benjamin Harrison’s boyhood memories of his grandpa were limited at best. Nevertheless, WHH was a President, and it counts. And if being the grandson of a President was not enough of a connection, there was more.

President Benjamin Harrison’s great-grandfather, also named Benjamin Harrison, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a good friend of George Washington.  He was also one of the first Governors of the State of Virginia. The relationship between Washington and the new President’s namesake and great-grandfather was a long and personal one.

The Inaugural Centennial

A centennial of anything is an important anniversary.  The country had gone wild for Philadelphia’s centennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1876, and even for accepting the great gift from France, the Statue of Liberty, which did not actually take place until a decade later.

New York City wanted to match the earlier hoopla of Philadelphia, and declared a huge party in late April, 1889.

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President Harrison re-creates the landing of George Washington in lower Manhattan.  There were even bigger crowds!

According to information from the helpful researchers at Mount Vernon, re-enactments had always been popular, and while there is little formal documentation, it is likely that George Washington’s entire progress from Mount Vernon, through all the towns along the way to New York, was re-enacted in various ways, which may have included prominent citizens standing-in for the General, and riding a few miles,  like the traveling Olympic torch.

What is known, and is well documented, is that newly-inaugurated President Benjamin Harrison rode the last leg of that journey. He took the train up from Washington to the Governor’s Mansion in Trenton, (only a few hours), and later boarded a ferry from Elizabeth, NJ to New York City, where he rode a white horse (a la George Washington) to be greeted by the multitudes for a three-day shindig.

New York Plays Host

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The parade itself lasted for nearly eight hours. Every club and organization, trade association and thousands of ex-Civil War soldiers marched.

The Big Apple always does parties right! Every organization, from local fire brigades and police departments, to all the “ethnic” clubs, civic associations, and countless regiments of Civil War veterans and every Ladies Auxilliary unit lined up for a grand parade that lasted for nearly eight hours. Every club that boasted a band had a contingent marching and playing. Wagons were decorated in bunting, pulled by teams of horses. Girls in white dresses rode the floats throwing rose petals. (Rose petal throwing was definitely a documented activity when GW was inaugurated!)

Then there were the dinners. The balls. The presentations. The speeches, and oh yes, the actual recreation of Washington’s inaugural. Every notable was on hand to participate. Senators, Congressmen, Governors and Mayors came from miles around.

A Personal Connection

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It is very doubtful that my grandmother and her sisters were part of this photo, but they definitely were watching the parade!

When I was around eight, my grandmother told me that when she was my age, living in the tired-and-poor tenements of New York’s Lower East Side she went to a parade and saw President Benjamin Harrison riding a white horse. At eight, I did not know what questions to ask. When I got a little older, and asked what the event was, she couldn’t remember.

I had often wondered what the connection was with President Benjamin Harrison, the white horse, and Grandma’s childhood recollection. It would not be till some thirty years ago that I learned about the Inaugural Centennial. So much time had elapsed, and so many other celebrations of mega-importance had eclipsed 1889, that the event is all but forgotten today. But not by me.

The hand of history stretches from me to Grandma, to President Benjamin Harrison, who stretched his hand back to a great-grandpa who had shaken the hand of George Washington.

Sources:

http://americanhistory.si.edu/steinwaydiary/annotations/?id=608

https://www.archives.gov/legislative/features/gw-inauguration

http://www.mountvernon.org/

 

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About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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4 Responses to Benjamin Harrison and the Washington Centennial. And Me.

  1. energywriter says:

    Wonderful connections to history as it was made. Definitely a cause for justified pride.

  2. Hi Feather,
    I enjoyed this, only I was left wondering about the “servants” you mentioned, without whom the Washingtons would have struggled to get their inaugural ball. We’re they slaves or paid employees? Thanks.

    • Some of each. To the best of my knowledge, the Washingtons brought a few of their most trusted slaves with them (both to NY and Philly), and rotated them periodically back to Mount Vernon. This may have been to accommodate state laws regarding how long slaves could remain in that state without becoming “free.” I think the wonderful docents at Mt. Vernon could clarify this better.

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