The Virginian, tall and stately and ramrod straight, stepped onto the crowded second-floor balcony of the old Federal Building in lower Manhattan and took his place beside a large decorative Bible. A thunderous roar erupted from the sea of people on Wall Street, followed by tense silence as everyone strained to hear the man’s voice. He would not say much—only two words—but both syllables would shape the ages to come. This man was about to change history. He was about to take the oath of office as the first president of the United States of America.
General Washington was dressed in a modest, double-breasted brown suit with buttons embossed with eagles. A sword dangled at his side. His face was careworn. The Bible before him, bound in rich brown leather, had been hastily borrowed from the altar of the nearby St. John’s Lodge. It rested on a red cushion held by Samuel Otis, secretary of the Senate, and it was opened to Genesis 49, the passage containing the blessings of Jacob to his twelve sons who were destined to become a great nation.
After placing his hand on the Bible, the general listened to the oath of office, which was quoted by Robert Livingstone, chancellor of New York. After hearing the final words—“preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States”—Washington said, “I do,” and then he did something extraordinary. To the thrill of the crowd and in full view of posterity, he removed his hand from Genesis 49 then reverently bent down and kissed the Bible.
“It is done!” Livingston cried to the crowd. “Long live George Washington, president of the United States!” The multitude burst into cheers—shouting, yelling, weeping, and rejoicing as the father of their nation quietly turned and disappeared into the building to give his inaugural address to members of Congress.
In that speech, Washington said:
No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than the people of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency. . . . The propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained.
On that spring day in 1789, hundreds of eyewitnesses saw Washington lay his hands on God’s Word and kiss its pages. And those who heard his remarks took notice of his reverence toward the God of heaven who has revealed His “eternal rules of order and right,” an unmistakable reference to Scripture.