A Truly American Tradition

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A Truly American Tradition

by Harry Rubenstein,
Curator, Social History Division,
Smithsonian National Museum
of American History

Once every four years, Americans witness the swearing-in of a president. Accompanied by elaborate parades and elegant balls, these grand ceremonies create an atmosphere that once was reserved for the coronations of royalty. Presidential inaugurations are not simply festive events, however. They are occasions for Americans to come together to celebrate democratic traditions and to honor the person who represents the United States to the world.

No matter how individual presidents choose to run their inaugurations, the inaugural ceremony represents a triumph for democracy. For more than 200 years, during times of peace or war, crisis or prosperity, Americans have witnessed the transfer of power from one president to another without bloodshed or revolution. This peaceful and orderly transition is one of our government's great accomplishments and an inspiration for freedom-loving people around the world.

The origins of the presidential inaugural ceremony can be traced to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Delegates from the individual colonies arrived in Philadelphia to create a new government for the recently independent and newly named "United States." After much debate, the fifty-five delegates wrote the new Constitution, establishing the three separate branches of American government that still exist today: legislative, executive, and judicial.

In that process, the delegates created the office of the presidency to oversee the executive branch. They worked long hours to reach agreement on how much power a president should have. They debated how to establish limits to that power, thus assuring the public that future presidents would not turn the executive office into a king's court. Finally, the delegates agreed that the president should take a solemn oath promising to support not only the country, but also assume office taking this oath: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

The simple 35-word oath, first repeated by George Washington on April 30, 1789—and by every president since then—is all that has ever been legally required for a presidential inauguration. Beginning with Washington, however, inaugurations became grandiose events that go far beyond mere swearing-in ceremonies. And Washington's inauguration included several events—the president's address to Congress and fancy dress balls, for example—that remain inaugural traditions to this day.

In some ways, Washington's inauguration resembled a royal coronation. Throughout his eight-day journey from his home at Mt. Vernon, Virginia, to the temporary capital in New York City, New York, Washington enjoyed a hero's reception. Along the route, well-wishers greeted the president-elect, and towns hosted celebrations and banquets in his honor. A specially built barge met Washington on the New Jersey shore, and he was rowed across the Hudson River to New York City.

On the morning of April 30, 1789, Washington climbed into a canary-yellow coach drawn by four white horses, and was escorted by two military companies to Federal Hall to take the oath of office. On the balcony, before a large crowd, Washington placed his right hand on a red-covered Bible and recited the oath required by the Constitution. He ended his oath with the words "so help me God." Over the more than two centuries since that moment, most other presidents have also added that unwritten phrase. Washington then kissed the Bible. Bells across the city rang in celebration. The nation's first president then went inside the hall, where he made the first inaugural address to Congress.

That evening, the entire city of New York celebrated with fireworks and parties. A special presidential ball was postponed until Washington's wife, Martha, could arrive. When it was learned that her trip was delayed, however, the ball proceeded without the first lady. Another inaugural ball, held on May 5, lasted well into the morning hours.

Twelve years later, Thomas Jefferson, the third president, felt that the whole inaugural ceremony was too royal in tone for a democratic nation. Therefore, he kept his inauguration, the first held in the new capital of Washington, D.C., quite simple. On the morning of March 4, 1801, Jefferson, escorted by members of Congress and citizens, left his boarding house. He walked along a narrow footpath, now known as Pennsylvania Avenue, to the Capitol building, which was only half built. In the crowded Senate chamber, Chief Justice John Marshall administered the oath. Jefferson delivered his inaugural address, speaking so softly that most people there could not hear him. The new president then walked back to his boarding house to host a small dinner for political and military leaders.

Except during times of war, no other elected president has chosen to celebrate his inauguration so quietly. In fact, most new administrations have chosen to follow Washington's lead, rather than Jefferson's.

Jefferson, however, did start a tradition during his second inauguration in 1805. After taking the oath and giving the inaugural address, he hosted an open house at the White House for anyone who wished to meet him. That event got out of control during Andrew Jackson's inauguration in 1829, when thousands of well-wishers rushed to the White House. In the rowdy celebration, furniture and china were ruined, and Jackson himself was forced to escape through a window to avoid being crushed by the crowd.

That did not stop future presidents from following the lead of Jefferson and Jackson. Despite concerns for his safety during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln opened the White House for his second inauguration in 1865, personally greeting thousands of citizens. The open house event, today held the day after the inauguration, is still very popular, and thousands wait in orderly lines to meet the president and first lady.

Although balls were part of inauguration festivities beginning with Washington, they were unofficial events until 1809, when James Madison hosted the first official inaugural ball. The band played "President Madison's March" as the president and his wife, Dolley, entered a ballroom filled with over 400 guests. While the new first lady thoroughly enjoyed the event, the new president told a friend: "I would much rather be in bed."

Since then, the balls have grown in both size and numbers. They have become a time for the winning political party to celebrate its victory and introduce the nation's new political leaders to the world. The balls have not always gone smoothly, however. President James K. Polk held two balls in 1845. One was a $10-a-ticket ball for Washington's elite, and the other a $2 "pure Democrats" ball for the party faithful. When the invitations were inadvertently mixed up, the diplomatic corps attended the two-dollar jamboree, and it was reported that a foreign minister's wife was seen dancing with her gardener.

Woodrow Wilson broke with tradition in 1913, when he canceled the planned inaugural ball. He thought the presidential inauguration was too serious an occasion to feature what he considered a lighthearted event. Not until Franklin Roosevelt's inauguration in 1933 did balls again became part of inaugural celebrations. In recent years, to meet the large demands for tickets, numerous inaugural balls have been held. Bill Clinton hosted fourteen official balls in 1997, and George W. Bush held eight in 2001.

Although attendance at balls is limited, the inaugural parade is an event for everyone. In 1841, William Henry Harrison led one of the most elaborately planned parades. It included marching bands, floats, and, to everyone's amazement, six white horses that pulled a giant weaving machine. As pieces of cloth were woven, they were tossed to the crowd for souvenirs. Teddy Roosevelt's 1905 inauguration also featured an extraordinary parade. Cowboys, Native Americans including Geronimo, and a procession of Rough Riders (Roosevelt's Spanish-American War cavalry regiment) marched in the event. As the last of the 35,000 marchers passed, the president declared the whole parade "bully"—his pet expression meaning "excellent."

Despite all the celebration that surrounds the inauguration, however, the administering of the oath of office and the inaugural address remain the focus of the ceremonies. In 1817, James Monroe became the first president in Washington to take the oath of office outdoors and to deliver his speech to a crowd of citizens. He did this because the Capitol, which had been burned by the British in the War of 1812, had not yet been rebuilt. The temporary building could not hold the crowds expected to attend, so an outdoor platform was erected from which Monroe delivered his speech. A little more than ten years later, Andrew Jackson became the first president to take the oath of office on the steps of the Capitol.

For one president, taking the oath outdoors proved fatal. At the time of his inauguration, William Henry Harrison was sixty-eight, and the oldest individual yet to become president. Some questioned whether he had the stamina for the job. To demonstrate his vigor, Harrison rode on horseback in his parade on a wintry March day. Next, without donning a hat or coat, he delivered a two-hour speech, the longest inaugural address in history. He caught a cold and died of pneumonia one month later.

Although holding the swearing-in ceremonies outdoors allowed large crowds to attend the proceedings, few people could actually hear what the new president said. It was not until President Warren Harding's inauguration in 1921 that loudspeakers were used. Before that, most of the public read the inaugural address in the newspaper. Calvin Coolidge's address in 1925 was the first to be nationally broadcast on radio, and in 1949, Harry Truman was the first to give an inaugural address on television.

No matter how they were delivered—whether they were heard or read, or whether they were long or short—inaugural addresses have all uniquely reflected the times in which they were given. In some cases, a new president's words have foreshadowed troubles or celebrated good times to come. In other instances, the president has strived to inspire or comfort a struggling, troubled nation. In his second inaugural address, given during the final weeks of the Civil War, for example, Lincoln tried to encourage the war-weary nation with these words: "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." Franklin Roosevelt, during the depths of the Great Depression, sought to strengthen the nation's confidence by declaring: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." John Kennedy, hoping to inspire Americans to accept new social and civic challenges of the 1960s, urged people to "Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country."

Today, the words of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Kennedy stand out as especially poignant reminders of unique periods in our nation's history. Their eloquence—and the eloquence of other great inaugural speeches—speaks to us across decades and sheds light on what we have endured as a country. But these speeches do more than remind us of our nation's past. They provide insight, word by word, into the character and personality of each man who has led America from the most powerful single office in our government.

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A Truly American Tradition

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