News

US Inaugurations Mix Tradition with Change

The United States Constitution says little about Presidential inaugurations, except to state the oath of office…the words that have been repeated by American Presidents for more than two centuries. But even if the speeches, parades and parties that surround that oath are not required by law, they have become time-honored traditions, many dating back to America's earliest days as a nation.

 

Paul F. Boller, Jr., author of Presidential Inaugurations, notes that the United States was launching an experiment in self-government when the first inauguration took place. "The Founding Fathers thought it was important to have a ceremony when they installed George Washington in office," says Mr. Boller. "Of course I think they also wanted to honor Washington. They felt that without him to start off this experiment they wouldn't have much of a chance."

 

That first Presidential inauguration took place in New York, on April 30th, 1789. The ceremony was later moved to the new capital city of Washington, D.C., and January 20th eventually became Inauguration Day to reduce the gap between Election Day in November and the start of a new administration. But, in other ways, George Washington's inauguration became a model for those that followed.

 

"Washington was driven in a coach to the Congress," explains Paul Boller. "That was one precedent, that now you've got two branches of government involved. And then he decided to take the oath on the Bible. That was common in those days for taking oaths. Then he said 'So help me God,' afterwards. That was his innovation. And then he decided to give an inaugural address giving the aims of this new country. And then he attended a dinner with friends and watched fireworks. Those few simple things, they became standard."

 

In 1809, James Madison hosted the first inaugural ball, and soon Presidents were staging a round of parties and receptions to celebrate their arrival at the White House. One of the most famous inaugural parties took place when Andrew Jackson became President in 1829. Mr. Jackson had campaigned as a leader for everyday people. "So he invited them all to the White House for a reception after he took his oath of office,” says Mr. Boller, “and they came in big mobs. People stood on the furniture with muddy boots to see him, and when waiters came in bringing food, people started fighting over food. Jackson finally escaped through the window. And this shocked dignified people. They said, 'This is democracy getting out of hand.' But other people said, 'No, this is just the American people, showing their enthusiasm for government.'"

 

Inaugurations turned even more festive in 1873, when Ulysses S. Grant became the first President to hold an inaugural parade. "It tended to be a military parade," Paul Boller explains. "This was not long after the Civil War, and General Grant was the great Union commander. But after that civilians quickly began to be added to the afternoon parade. There would be governors, senators and other prominent people, and then high school students, college students. And then you began to get floats and even circus animals -- elephants and things like that."

 

Not all inaugurations have gone off quite as planned. Some have been marred by freezing weather. Others have been disrupted by protestors. But U.S. Presidents aim to make the day a time for celebration and unity -- and those who give a stirring inaugural speech can leave a lasting legacy. Paul Boller counts John F. Kennedy's 1961 address as among the most famous. "It spends most of its time on foreign affairs,” he says. “It's very much a Cold War inauguration. Kennedy promises that the American people will do everything they can to stop communism from spreading, and defend freedom around the world."

         

U.S. Presidential inaugurations have also gotten longer, more elaborate and more costly. "By the late nineteenth century," Paul Boller notes, "you go from one day to two or three or four or five or even a week. You have all sorts of things added to it beforehand -- the recitals, plays, galas, big variety shows, cocktail parties, lunches, dinners. It goes on and on."

 

But none of that would be possible without the swearing-in ceremony that lasts just a few minutes and includes only a few brief words. It is the oath of office, says Paul Boller, that turns a U.S. President-elect into a President.

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
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.
Calais School Offers Another Face of Europe’s Migrant Crisisi
X
Lisa Bryant
September 02, 2015 6:19 PM
Europe is facing mounting criticism over how it’s handling its biggest migration crisis since World War II. But not all Europeans believe building walls or passing repressive policies are the answer. A school for migrants in the French port city of Calais, is opening doors and building bonds across nationalities. VOA's Lisa Bryant reports.
Video

Video Calais School Offers Another Face of Europe’s Migrant Crisis

Europe is facing mounting criticism over how it’s handling its biggest migration crisis since World War II. But not all Europeans believe building walls or passing repressive policies are the answer. A school for migrants in the French port city of Calais, is opening doors and building bonds across nationalities. VOA's Lisa Bryant reports.
Video

Video Russia-Japan Relations Cool as Putin Visits China for WWII Anniversary

Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Beijing for commemorations of the 70th anniversary of China's WWII victory over Japan. Putin is expected to visit Japan later this year, but tensions between Tokyo and Moscow over islands disputed since the war, and sanctions over Ukraine, could pour cold water on the plan. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Kurdish Fighters on IS Frontline Ready for Offensive

Finger on the trigger, the Kurdish Peshmerga soldier stared across the dust at a village taken over by Islamic State extremists. The Kurdistan’s Khazir frontline, just 45 minutes from the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul. And at this point, the militants were less than two kilometers away. VOA's Sharon Behn reports.
Video

Video Yemen ‘on Brink of Disaster’ as Medical Shortages Soar

Aid agencies warn Yemen is on the brink of humanitarian disaster – with up to half a million children facing severe malnutrition, and hospitals running out of basic medicines. There are fears Yemen's civil war could escalate as the coalition led by Saudi Arabia tries to drive back Houthi rebels, who seized control of much of the country earlier this year. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Apps Helping Kenyan Businesses Stay Ahead of Counterfeiters

Counterfeit goods in Kenya cost the government as much as $1 billion each year in lost tax revenues. The fake goods also hurt entrepreneurs who find it hard to carve out a niche in the market and retain customers. But as Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi, information technology is being used to try to beat the problem.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.

VOA Blogs