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Original 1789 First Inaugural Button: “Memorable Era / March the Fourth 1789
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[GEORGE WASHINGTON]. 1789 "Memorable Era" Inaugural Button. 34 mm brass with original shank. Word "Era" weakly struck, as is typical. GW-1789-4, Albert WI-1a.

Inventory #25446       Price: $11,000

This splayed-eagle design brass coat button is similar to that worn by George Washington himself at his first inauguration.  The date of March 4, 1789, was the day appointed for the first meeting of the Federal Congress, though Washington’s inauguration was not until April 30 in New York City.


Cleaned at one time, but a very attractive example.


Historical Background

On the morning of April 30, crowds began to gather in front of the presidential mansion in New York City. According to the diary of Tobias Lear, Washington’s personal secretary:

At nine o’clock all the churches in the city were opened, and prayers offered up to the Great Ruler of the universe for the preservation of the President.… At half past twelve the procession moved forward, the troops marching in front with all the ensigns of military parade.  Next came the committees and heads of departments in their carriages. Next the President in the state coach, and Colonel Humphreys and myself in the President’s own carriage.  The foreign ministers and a long train of citizens brought up the rear.

About two hundred yards before we reached the hall, we descended from our carriages, and passed through the troops, who were drawn up on each side, into the Hall and Senate-chamber, where we found the Vice-President, the Senate, and House of Representatives assembled. They received the President in the most respectful manner, and the Vice-President conducted him to a spacious and elevated seat at the head of the room. A solemn silence prevailed. The Vice-President soon arose and informed the President, that all things were prepared to administer the oath whenever he should see fit to proceed to the balcony and receive it. He immediately descended from his seat, and advanced through the middle door of the Hall to the balcony. The others passed through the doors on each side. The oath was administered in public by Chancellor Livingston; and, the moment the chancellor proclaimed him President of the United States, the air was rent by repeated shouts and huzzas,-- “God bless our Washington! Long live our beloved President!” We again returned into the Hall, where, being seated as before for a few moments, the President arose and addressed the two branches of Congress in a speech, which was heard with eager and marked attention.[1]

Fisher Ames “sat entranced,” writing “It was a very touching scene, and quite of the solemn kind.  His aspect grave, almost to sadness; his modesty, actually shaking; his voice deep, a little tremulous, and so low as to call for close attention.”[2]

On the other hand, William Maclay gave a rare critical account:

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, though it must be supposed he had often read it before….  When he came to the words [“]all the world,[”]he made a flourish with his right hand, which left rather an ungainly impression. I sincerely, for my part, wished all set ceremony in the hands of the dancing-masters, and that this first of men had read off his address in the plainest manner…for I felt hurt that he was not first in everything.[3]

Following the address, the president and the members of the House and Senate walked about seven hundred yards to St. Paul’s Chapel to attend services conducted by the Rev. Dr. Samuel Provoost, bishop of the Episcopal church of New York and rector of Trinity Church. After prayers and the singing of a Te Deum, Washington retired to the presidential mansion. He apparently dined quietly at home; then as Lear noted in his diary, “the President, Colonel Humphreys, and myself went in the beginning of the evening in the carriages to Chancellor Livingston’s and General Knox’s, where we had a full view of the fire-works.”[4]

On his way to Livingston’s, Washington halted to admire the house of the French minister, the comte de Moustier,

illuminated and decorated with several transparencies relative to the victories and virtues of General Washington. He seemed pleased with the one representing eleven bees emerging from their hives, headed by their queen, with this epigraph from Virgil: “Ille operum custos; illum admirantur et omnes / Circumstant fremitus denso.” (“He is the guardian of their toils; they all admire and stand around him in a noisy crowd.”)[5]

Don Diego de Gardoqui reported to the Spanish minister of State that he had decorated his house

with two magnificent transparent gardens, adorned with statues, natural size, imitating marble….  There were also various flower-pots, different arches with foliage and columns of imitation marble, and on the sky of these gardens were placed thirteen stars, representing the United States of America--two of which stars showed opaque, to designate the two States which had not adopted the Constitution.[6]

Washington and his party returned to the presidential residence about ten o’clock in the evening, traveling on foot because the crowds thronging the streets were too great to permit the passage of carriages.[7]


[1]Jared Sparks, The Writings of George Washington, 12 vols. (Boston: Ferdinand Andrews, 1839), 10:463.

[2]Fisher Ames to George Richard Minot, May 3, 1789, in Works of Fisher Ames, 2 vols. (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1854), 1:34-36.

[3] Charles A. Beard, ed., The Journal of William Maclay: United States Senator from Pennsylvania, 1789-1791 (New York, 1927), 8.

[4]Sparks, Writings, 10:464.

[5]Moustier to Montmorin, June 5, 1789 Arc. Nat., Aff. Etr., Corr. Pol., Etats-Unis, vol. 34, translation in Clarence Winthrop Bowen, ed., The History of the Centennial Celebration of the Inaugurationof George Washington as First President of the United States (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1892), 47-49. Also see the Gazette of the United States (New York), May 2, 1789.

[6]Bowen, Inauguration, 47.

[7]Sparks, Writings, 10:464.

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