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The Presidential Inauguration in History

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The First Inauguration

It was in New York City, out nation’s first capital, that George Washington became the first President of the United States. Congress had planned for the new government to begin its responsibilities on March 4, 1789, but a harsh winter made travel difficult, and it wasn’t until April 6 that enough congressmen arrived in New York to count the electors’ votes and announce, "Whereby it appears that George Washington, Esq. Was unanimously elected President, --and John Adams, Esq. Was duly elected Vice President of the United States of America…"

It took several days for the exciting news to reach Mount Vernon, General Washington’s home in Virginia. He set off for the capital, leaving behind his wife, Martha, who would join him later. He traveled by coach and on horseback through Baltimore, Wilmington, and Philadelphia, finally arriving in New York City aboard a grand barge that had been rowed from New Jersey across Newark Bay. Meanwhile John Adams, his Vice President-elect, and the Congress were deciding what the new Chief Executive’s official title should be. Adams preferred "His Most Benign Highness," but a congressional committee settled on the title we still use today: "President of the United States."

Inauguration Day, April 30, began with the sounds of ceremonial artillery and church bells ringing across the city. At noon, General Washington made his way through large crowds to Federal Hall, where both houses of Congress were assembled for swearing-in. New York Chancellor Robert Livingston read the oath, and Washington, his right hand on a Bible, repeated the words inscribed in the Constitution: "I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States." President Washington added the words, "So help me God," a custom followed by every President since.

Inaugural Traditions

The First Inauguration gave rise to many traditions that continue today. For example, President Washington followed his swearing-in with an Inaugural Address, a special speech written for the occasion. In 1793, the oath of office for Washington’s second term was administered by William Cushing, an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court and the first in a long line of Supreme Court Justices to preside over Presidential Inaugurations.

Thomas Jefferson was the first to be sworn in as President in Washington, D.C., the location chosen for the permanent capital and the site of all but a handful of Inaugural ceremonies. Jefferson showed his taste for simplicity by going on foot to the Capitol for the oath-taking and returning to his boardinghouse afterwards for dinner. After his second Inauguration, however, Jefferson rode on horseback from the Capitol to the President’s House (the name then used for the White House) amid music and a spontaneous gathering of mechanics from the nearby Navy Yard – a procession that grew into today’s Inaugural Parade.

Jefferson’s second Inauguration also began the tradition of the Inaugural Open House, when the executive mansion was opened to all who wished to greet the President after his swearing-in. The popularity of the Open House would later cause our seventh President, Andrew Jackson, to flee through a window after a mob of well-wishers stormed the White House, ruining furniture and breaking china in their eagerness to see him. In 1865, despite growing concern about safety, Abraham Lincoln shook some 6,000 hands after his second Inauguration. President Grover Cleveland, realizing that the White House could no longer accommodate such crowds, instead held a review of the troops from a flag-draped grandstand just outside, adding another element to the Inaugural Parade.

Presidents have celebrated in many ways since George Washington danced the minuet after his Inauguration in 1789. James Madison, America’s fourth President, and his wife, Dolley, were the guests of honor at the first official Inaugural Ball, held at Long’s Hotel in Washington, D.C. Martin Van Buren’s Inauguration featured two balls, and President William Henry Harrison held three to meet the ever-growing demand for tickets. Later Inaugurations have featured specially built pavilions for dancing, balls held at several sites throughout the capital, and even Inaugural parties in other cities. Modern Inaugural festivities reflect not only the President they honor, but also the desire to include the many Americans who want to take part in celebrating our nation’s rich history and the transfer of presidential power.

Technology and Ceremony

You may have watched President Bill Clinton’s 1997 Inauguration on television or heard about it from a radio broadcast. Maybe your local newspaper carried photographs of the event, or perhaps you visited an Internet web site to get information about the ceremony and various Inaugural celebrations. We rely on technology to help us participate in and learn about our government in ways that previous generations of Americans never dreamed.

For example, only the members of Congress gathered in Federal Hall on April 30, 1789, heard President Washington’s first Inaugural Address. Twenty years later, after James Madison’s swearing-in, his speech was published in the newspaper for all to read. James Polk took the oath of office on 1845 while Samuel Morse, inventor of the electric telegraph, sat near him on the platform tapping out the news on his miraculous machine.

It was 1857 – the year James Buchanan became President –when the Inauguration ceremony was first photographed. Citizens across the country were able to share in the festivities through pictures. Four decades later, movie cameras recorded highlights of William McKinley’s Inauguration, giving viewers a new window into history. The year 1925 found Americans gathered around their radios to hear Calvin Coolidge take the oath of office, and in 1949, Harry Truman became the first President to whose swearing-in was televised. If you like to use computers, you may know that President Bill Clinton’s second Inauguration was the first to have an official web site and to be seen live on the Internet by people around the world.

Inaugural Language

The Constitution is the supreme law of the united States, describing out country’s three-branched, democratic system of government and the fundamental rights to which all citizens are entitled. In Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, our nation’s founders declared that "The executive Power shall be vested in the President of the United States of America," and provided an oath of office for the President-elect’s official swearing-in. This 35-word oath has remained unchanged for more than two centuries, in part because it so clearly and simply describes the responsibilities of the Chief Executive:

"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."

In 1817, James Monroe, our fifth President, became the first to give an Inaugural Address to an assembled public crowd. Since that time, the traditional Inaugural Address has been an opportunity for the President to speak directly to the American people. George Washington said juts 135 words after his second inauguration in 1793, while William Henry Harrison gave the longest Inaugural Address ever, taking almost two hours to deliver 8,445 words.

Inaugural Addresses are often remembered as reflecting a particular time in history. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called on Americans to "…finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds," while in 1933 Franklin Roosevelt reached out to citizens discouraged by the Great Depression, saying, "This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper." President John F. Kennedy inspired a generation of young people in 1961 when he urged, "…ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country." And in 1993, President Bill Clinton reassured a nation in transition after the end of the Cold War by stating, "There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America."

The Clinton Inaugurations


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