DC is currently abuzz with the run-up to the Presidential Inauguration, and we need to take a moment to look at what it is, what it's been, and what's going to happen next week. For a historian like myself, it's a great time to be here.
What it is:
Quite simply, the US Presidential Inauguration is the swearing in of a new President. More importantly, it is one of the defining landmarks of American society-the peaceful transfer of power and authority from one group of leaders to the next. Power-the control of the government- is the wedge that has split societies and cultures from the beginning of time, but in America, our Presidents willingly step down from a position of power and transfer that power to the next duly-elected President. It's a noteworthy event-and one that happens in full view of the public, not hidden in some back room for the exclusive elite. This will be the 56th Presidential Inauguration since the first Inauguration of George Washington, in New York City, in 1789. Since then, it has evolved into a rich and colorful tradition and I'll highlight a few of those traditions below.
What it has been:
From 1789-1937, Inauguration Day was held March 4, the last day of the ending Congressional term (the passage of the 20th Amendment to the US Constitution, which deals with Presidential succession, vacancies, and other administrative terms of office) established Inauguration Day as January 20th). From the presidency of Andrew Jackson (1829) through Jimmy Carter (1977), the ceremony took place on the Capitol's East Portico-the side that faces the Supreme Court, opposite the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial.
In 1981, Ronald Reagan was the first President to move his Inauguration Ceremony to the West side of the U.S. Capitol. Every President since then has followed his lead and used the west steps of the Capitol as the stage for the event.
There have been eight "private" swearing-ins of the President, but they have always occurred at times of crisis-the tragedy of a Presidential assassination (LBJ sworn-in on board Air Force One after JFK's death in 1963) or death of the President (John Tyler sworn-in in a hotel room after the death of William Henry Harrison in 1841).
The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (since 2005, it's been Justice John Roberts) administers the Oath of Office to the President, although there have been 7 other times when various people, for one reason or the other, have performed the duty.
Although it now occurs in Washington, DC, that hasn't always been the case. Presidents have also taken the oath in New York City (twice), Philadelphia (twice), Buffalo, NY, Vermont and Dallas, Texas.
Immediately after the Oath of Office, the President gives his Inaugural Address. Throughout history, this has been the scene for some of our most memorable speeches and phrases:
"Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle"-Thomas Jefferson; March 4, 1801
"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan - to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."-Abraham Lincoln; March 4, 1865
"We wish peace, but we wish the peace of justice, the peace of righteousness. We wish it because we think it is right and not because we are afraid. No weak nation that acts manfully and justly should ever have cause to fear us, and no strong power should ever be able to single us out as a subject for insolent aggression."-Theodore Roosevelt; March 4, 1905.
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."-Franklin D Roosevelt; March 4, 1933.
"Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."-John F. Kennedy; Jan 20, 1961
The Inauguration has always been viewed as a significant time, and a time of celebration. For some, it's a celebration of the success of democracy. For others, it's a celebration of a popular President's term, or a celebration of the ending on an unpopular President's term.
What is going to happen on Jan 20:
The events that occur on Inauguration Day have developed over the last 200 years and follow a predictable pattern.
Morning Worship Service: The morning worship service tradition began with Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, and is usually a private service for the President-elect and a few select family and friends. For a listing of the president's since FDR and where they attended a service, click
President-Elect John F. Kennedy shakes hands with Father Richard J. Casey after attending Mass at Holy Trinity Church.
Procession to the Capitol: After the Morning Worship Service, the President and President-Elect proceed together to the Capitol for the swearing-in ceremonies. This tradition has endured since 1837, when Martin Van Buren and Andrew Jackson rode together in a carriage made from wood taken from the U.S.S. Constitution. Since the first Inauguration of George Washington in 1789, the procession to the Inaugural ceremonies has provided an occasion for much celebration. In fact, the Inaugural parade that now follows the swearing-in ceremony first began as the procession, when military companies, bands, the President's cabinet, elected officials, and friends escorted the President-elect to the Inauguration. Of note, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson both walked to the Capitol, and in 1841, William Henry Harrison rode to the Capitol on the back of a brilliant white horse. In 1921, Warren G. Harding became the first President to ride to his Inauguration in a car.
President-elect Woodrow Wilson and President William Taft riding in a horse drawn carriage during the presidential inaugural ceremonies in Washington, D. C; March 4, 1913.
President's swearing-in ceremony: As previously mentioned, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court administers the oath to the President-Elect. Some Presidents have chosen to have their hand resting on a Bible, but not all of them. Obama will rest his hand on the same Bible that Abraham Lincoln used during his swearing-in ceremony.
Inaugural Address: George Washington's 2nd Inaugural Address was the shortest one in history, at 135 words. It's a safe bet that Obama will be slightly longer.
(If you are really into this stuff and want to read each and every Inaugural Address ever made, you can do so here:
Departure of outgoing president: Following the ceremony, the outgoing President and First Lady leave the Capitol to begin their post-presidential lives. In recent years, the newly installed President and Vice President have escorted their predecessors out of the Capitol.
The members of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies gather on the east steps of the Capitol Building. The new Vice President escorts the outgoing Vice President and his spouse out of the Capitol through a military cordon. Then, the new President escorts the outgoing President and his spouse through the military cordon.
Since Gerald Ford's departure in 1977, the former President and First Lady have left the Capitol grounds by helicopter (weather permitting).
The 2004 Inaugural Luncheon in Statuary Hall.
Inaugural parade: After the Inaugural Luncheon, the guests of honor-the newly sworn President and Vice President-will make their way down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, leading a procession of ceremonial military regiments, citizens' groups, marching bands, and floats. The President, Vice President, their wives, and special guests will then review the parade as it passes in front of a specially built reviewing stand. The Inaugural parade is a celebrated and much anticipated event for millions of Americans across the country The tradition of an Inaugural Parade dates back to the very 1st Inauguration, when George Washington took the oath of office in New York City. As he began his journey from Mount Vernon to New York City, local militias joined his procession as it passed through towns along the way. Once he arrived in New York City, members of the Continental Army, government officials, members of Congress, and prominent citizens escorted Washington to Federal Hall for his swearing-in ceremony.
A few noteworthy events:
The first organized parade occurred in 1809, at the Inauguration of James Madison.
In 1865, during Abraham Lincoln's second Inauguration, African Americans marched in the parade for the first time.
In 1873, President Grant started the tradition of reviewing the parade at the White House after the Inaugural ceremony, shifting the focus of excitement to the post-Inaugural procession, rather than the escort to the Capitol.
In 1909, for the first time, the First Lady accompanied her husband (William H. Taft) as they led they parade from the Capitol to the White House.
In 1917, women first participated in the Inaugural Parade.
In 1921, President Warren G. Harding became the first President to ride in the procession in an automobile.
In 1977, Jimmy Carter broke precedent by walking in the parade, from the Capitol to the White House, with his wife and daughter.
The only parade known to have been canceled owing to bad weather was Ronald Regan's second in 1985, when frigid temperatures made the situation dangerous.
Inaugural Balls: The tradition of the Inaugural Ball dates to 1809 when the first Inaugural ball was thrown for James and Dolley Madison. In modern times, there are dozens of balls, although only a few are "official" balls recognized by the Presidential Inaugural Committee.
Most importantly, we have tickets to the Illinois State Society Inaugural Ball, a fancy black-tie affair held on the evening prior to the Inauguration.
President Reagan dances with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at his 1984 Inaugural Ball.
It's worth noting that the Theme of this Inauguration is "A New Birth of Freedom". If it sounds familiar, and I hope it does, it because that phrase was lifted out of The Gettysburg Address. In the last paragraph of his speech (by the way, one of only 5 copies of The Gettysburg Address written in Lincoln's own hand is currently being displayed at the National Museum of American History) Lincoln writes, "we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
This is a historical event-regardless of your political beliefs, this is an event that 40 years from now may very well be a watershed moment for American history. It is estimated that somewhere between 3-5 MILLION people will attempt to attend the ceremony in person-the parking and security logistics are incredible complex. Where do you park an estimated 10,000 tour buses? For the first time in history, the entire length of the National Mall, from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, will be open to pedestrians. 5,000 Porta-Potties will be trucked in for the event.
It may very well be the largest gathering of humanity I'll ever have the chance to be a part of.
I plan on being right in the middle of it, and I'll have the pictures to prove it.