Every four years, Americans pause for Inauguration Day to witness a hallmark of American democracy — the peaceful transfer of power. On January 20, all eyes will be on former Vice President Joe Biden, who will be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States.
Inauguration Day affirms the enduring American ideal of self-government. The new leader is sworn in after gaining the power to rule by the consent of the governed.
Setting the tone
New presidents begin their term with a speech that sets the tone for the next four years.
“It's a real opportunity for American renewal,” says Colleen Shogan, senior vice president at the White House Historical Association. “It is the first time that the president introduces himself as president to the nation, and he will never have that opportunity again to do that. So, it's a very important moment in American history.”
Some inaugural phrases strike enough of a chord that they become part of the American lexicon.
There is Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 pronouncement that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” And in 1961, John F. Kennedy told Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
“The speech embodies the ideas, the ideology, and the style and tone of the new president,” says political historian Matt Dallek of The George Washington University.
Some inaugural speeches have a lasting impact on the political landscape. Forty years after Ronald Reagan declared that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem,” Republicans continue to embrace anti-government rhetoric.
Transcending the moment
Whether it is Reagan’s call for limiting federal power, or the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama, America’s first Black president, there are times when inaugurations transcend their moment.
“They live on in national memory because they speak to something more fundamental about the country and about the period in which it is passing,” Dallek says.
The 2021 ceremony will be among the precedent-setting inaugurations, as California Sen. Kamala Harris becomes the first woman, and the first person of color, to be sworn in as vice president.
America’s first president, George Washington, gave the shortest inaugural address. The 1793 speech consisted of 135 words. William Henry Harrison’s 1841 inauguration speech was the longest at 8,455 words. It also turned tragic.
Harrison was the oldest man ever elected president at the time. To prove he was vigorous and up to the job, the 68-year-old delivered the lengthy speech, which took well over an hour, despite freezing temperatures. He fell ill that evening and died a month later.
He remains the shortest-serving U.S. president in history.
Symbolism can be a big part of Inauguration Day.
In 1809, while the young republic was still developing its national identity, James Madison made sure his entire inaugural outfit, down to his silk stockings, was made in America. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1953 and 1957 inaugural parades showcased America’s military might by putting tanks, soldiers and missiles on display.
“In 1865, (Abraham) Lincoln's second inauguration, he invited African Americans to participate in the inaugural parade for the first time,” Shogan says. “In 1917, the second inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, women participated in the inaugural parade for the first time.”
Inaugurations have grown from simple affairs into extravaganzas.
In 1801, Thomas Jefferson walked to his swearing-in at the U.S. Capitol, delivered his inaugural address and went back to his boarding house. Today, a heavy security detail escorts the presidential limousine to the swearing-in, which is watched by millions both in person and electronically. The ceremony is followed by a parade that celebrates all 50 states and can last for hours. Several balls in the evening round out the day.
The birth of television played a role in making inaugural visuals more important, but so did the increasing weight of the job.
“The presidency has become, over the centuries – and in particular since World War I and World War II – a much bigger job,” says Dallek. “And the expectations have become, as one historian put it, really the impossible presidency. ... As the duties and responsibilities of the president have grown, I think we've seen the inaugurals take on a larger-than-life atmosphere with the parties and the parades.”
While the pandemic will curtail many of the usual inaugural activities this year, COVID-19 will not keep the nation from celebrating the enduring resilience of American democracy.