US Presidential Inaugurations Have Rich History

When President George Bush takes the oath of office for a second four-year term on January 20th, it will be the latest installment of an American political ritual that has occurred every four years since George Washington's first presidential inaugural in 1789.  National correspondent Jim Malone has more on the history and symbolism of presidential inaugurations from Washington. 



For many Americans, the simple act of a new or re-elected president taking the oath of office on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building has come to symbolize the peaceful transfer of power and the continuity of American democracy.


Marvin Kranz, a historian with the Library of Congress told VOA, "I would say that this is one of the great events in what we might call civil religion in this country.  Even though most of the presidents have talked about being inaugurated under the auspices of Almighty God, nevertheless it is basically a very civil ceremony and it is something that takes place every four years, war or peace, no matter what."


The process of the inauguration: the oath-taking, inaugural address, the parade and formal balls that follow, have often helped the nation heal the political wounds in the wake of divisive elections, dating back to the early days of the republic.


Again, Marvin Kranz: "We have done this time and time again.  Every four years since 1789 and there has never been a revolution, there has never been a chance of an armed fight.  It simply has taken place.” 


Mr. Kranz gave this example of the least-accepted behavior: “When Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated in 1801, John Adams, the previous president who was defeated for re-election, kind of snuck out of Washington and was not present.  These days, even though they may not care for each other, the former president, if there has been a change, rides with the president from the White House to the inaugural stand."


When an incumbent president has been defeated, political experts say it is important for the public to see victor and vanquished standing together at the inaugural ceremony as a testament to the country's stability and political continuity, regardless of the outcome of the election.


That spirit was also on display at President Bush's first inaugural four years ago when the man he narrowly beat, outgoing Vice President Al Gore, stood on the same platform along with the outgoing president, Bill Clinton.


The highlight of the inaugural ceremony is usually the president's inaugural address, a tradition that historian Marvin Kranz says began with the first U.S. president, George Washington. "It has become a custom.  Washington, in his first inaugural address, gave a real address.  Now, in his second inaugural address, he had two paragraphs.  So, that is the shortest.”


Times have changed adds Mr. Kranz. “But it simply has been accepted and every president since that time has written an inaugural address."


Historian Kranz says what usually makes an inaugural address memorable is that it is considered a speech for the times.


Among those best remembered is Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, delivered near the end of the U.S. Civil War in 1865. "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 do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."


In 1933, a new president faced a different challenge.  Franklin Roosevelt delivered his first inaugural at the height of the Great Depression and he urged Americans not to give in to fear and despair with the phrase, "... the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."


In 1961, incoming-President John Kennedy used his inaugural address to encourage Americans to enlist in public service in what became the rallying cry for a generation. "And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country."


Four years ago, President Bush sought to unify the country in the wake of his closely contested election victory over Al Gore. "Never tiring, never yielding, never finishing, we renew that purpose today.  To make our country more just and generous, to affirm the dignity of our lives and every life."


With a more comfortable election victory this time, many analysts expect the president to be less open to compromise as he pushes a conservative agenda for tax and pension reform.


Thomas Mann monitors the U.S. political scene at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "I think this president is very ambitious in his policy and political designs but he is very well rooted in a view of what ought to be done that really prevents him from reaching out for new ideas and compromises with Democrats,” said Mr. Mann. “He is happy to welcome Democrats to support his proposals but he has no interest in compromising those proposals."


But there will be plenty of time for the divisive political battles after the inauguration.


Historian Marvin Kranz says the inauguration is generally a time when Americans put aside their political differences and recognize the stability and continuity of their democracy. "And it is part and parcel of what we are as Americans because we accept this sense of change,” said Mr. Kranz.


He added, “We know it is a legitimate change and we accept it.  Even in times of stress, we recognize this.  And those of us who might be in opposition to the new person who comes into office, he is still the president of all of us and we have to live under the new rules that are established."


Security is expected to be extremely tight for the first presidential inauguration since the 2001 terrorist attacks.  In addition, there is also concern about anti-Bush protestors who say they will turn their backs to the president as he passes along the inaugural parade route.


This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdrawsi
Jim Malone
October 09, 2015 12:32 AM
The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

VOA Blogs