Given our constitutional separation of powers, it seems odd that a presidential inauguration takes place on the Capitol steps. Like so much else in American history, the story begins with George Washington. In 1789, the First Congress met in New York City, where it proceeded to count the electoral ballots, an easy task since the vote had been unanimous. Congress sent notification to the president-elect in Virginia, and then swore in Vice President John Adams, who presided over the Senate before Washington ever arrived in New York.
As the only functioning branch of the new federal government at the time, Congress appointed a joint committee to conduct the presidential inauguration. Although the House of Representatives occupied the largest chamber in New York’s Federal Hall, the Senate had a balcony that would enable large crowds outside to witness the ceremony. After taking his oath outside, Washington went to the Senate chamber and delivered the first inaugural address. Everyone then proceeded to nearby St. Paul’s church to seek divine blessing for the new government. The First Amendment did not yet exist, but there was some controversy about this event since not everyone approved of an Episcopal church service. The joint committee had not recommended it, but the “churchmen” in Congress preferred it.
The Constitution specifies only the text of the oath of office that the president would take, and the date and time for the ceremony. Only the president takes that oath. Other government officials take an oath written by Congress. Beyond the Constitutional requirements, that first inauguration established many traditions. Congress would host the inaugural ceremonies and open them to the public. The Senate would take the lead in the joint committee on inaugural ceremonies. The new president would deliver an inaugural address. There would also be a parade, although in 1789 the parade had escorted the president to the inauguration, rather than away from it. And there would often be a church service connected to the event. Some accounts say that Washington ended his oath by saying “I swear, so help me God,” but the evidence is so sparse and contradictory that we don’t know one way or the other. That phrase is not in the Constitution, although Congress wrote it into the oath for other federal office holders. It is a personal choice for the president to say it, but one would think that the chief justice might want to deliver the oath exactly as it appears in the Constitution, without embellishment.
When the federal government moved to Washington, Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration took place in the Senate Chamber (the House wing of the Capitol remained incomplete at the time). The ceremony moved back outside for James Monroe’s inaugural in 1817, since by then the British had burned down the Capitol. Andrew Jackson took office as the man of the people, and such a large crowd was expected that he took the oath on the East Front stairs, beginning a tradition that continued until Jimmy Carter. The one exception was FDR’s 4th Inaugural in 1945, who overrode congressional objections during wartime to hold an austere inaugural at the White House. Despite its unhappiness, Congress could do nothing about it.
Every four years, construction of the inaugural platform grew more elaborate and expensive until 1980, when the Joint Committee voted to shift the ceremonies to the West Front, where the existing terrace could serve as a platform and where much larger crowds could be accommodated down the Mall. News stories often claim that Ronald Reagan as a Westerner chose the West Front, but in fact the joint committee had designated that site before Reagan had been nominated. Reagan shrewdly took possession of the move by incorporating it into his inaugural address, orating about looking west towards “those shrines to the giants on whose shoulders we stand,” and the graves of heroes in Arlington National Cemetery. Having gotten credit for a decision he did not make, Reagan did ask to move his next inauguration into the Capitol Rotunda because of extremely cold temperatures that day.
The biggest single change in the inauguration has been the date, which the Twentieth Amendment moved forward from 4 March to 20 January. This was done in part to stagger the beginning of the congressional and presidential terms so that preceding presidents did not need to spend their last night in office signing legislation before their authorization expired at noon. The weather in March was never good–rain, snow, cold blustery days–but the weather in January has also been unpredictable. Historians and journalists are always looking at the weather reports to find some ray of sunshine or other omen portending the future of the new administration.
The upcoming inauguration will attract large crowds in Washington and be broadcast and streamed to audiences around the world. All this holds great significance. After a divisive election, when everyone has chosen sides, the inauguration is intended to reunite the country. Presidential inaugural addresses traditionally appeal for healing the nation’s wounds and establishing common ground. In the wake of this past election, such goals will be much harder to achieve, but when the three branches of the government come together, with the legislative branch hosting on its steps the swearing in of the chief executive by the chief justice of the United States, the underlying theme will be national unity.
Featured image credit: Marching Band Military Army by Skeeze. Public Domain via Pixabay.
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