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.

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