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January 18, 2021

Lesson Plan: History of presidential inaugurations and how to plan your own ceremony

Singer Aretha Franklin performs during the inauguration ceremony for U.S. President Barack Obama at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009. Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. (Photo by Dennis Brack/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

 

For a Google doc version of this lesson, click here. (Note: You will need to make a copy of the Google doc to edit it.)

Overview

In this lesson, students will plan an inaugural ceremony to fit the moment. They will decide which traditions to observe and how, and then craft a speech as part of the ceremony.

Subjects

Civics, U.S. History, English & Language Arts, Speech and Theater

Estimated time

This lesson can be completed in one 50-minute class period, or stretched over multiple periods, including a writing assignment.

Grade level

9-12

Objectives:

  • Students will connect the issues facing the country at previous times in history to now.
  • Students will apply the words and ceremonies of past presidents to today’s crises.

Background:

The inauguration of the president of the United States is a ceremonial and cultural tradition that marks the beginning of a new or continuing four-year term for the president. It is a ritual marked by declarations of the oaths and responsibilities of the executive office under the Constitution and peaceful transfer of powers based on the will of voters. While the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, demonstrated mob violence in opposition to the ideal of a “peaceful transfer of power,” the inauguration on Jan.  20, reaffirms that transfer based on voting results rather than violence.

Since 1937, after the passage of the 20th Amendment, the date of the presidential inauguration moved from March to “noon on the 20th day of January.”  Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution requires that the new president take this prescribed oath or affirmation: “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.”

There are many old and new traditions that have grown up around the inauguration. The inauguration of January 20, 2021, may come close to some traditions but will also be markedly different in other ways, both because of security in the wake of the Jan. 6 attacks and also because of COVID precautions. Biden’s team decided that in a moment of crisis, some longstanding traditions were as important as ever to project normalcy and continuity, though it is impossible to observe inaugural tradition without acknowledging current crises in the U.S.

This will not be the first inaugural delivered during crisis. For example, one of the most famous inaugural addresses was given on March 4, 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In the speech, Roosevelt reassured a desperate nation, and other aspects of the ceremony helped provide a sense of continuity and normalcy.

Aside from the inaugural address, longstanding inaugural traditions include:

  • First nail ceremony: Members of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies drive the first nail into the platform at the west façade of the Capitol Building.
  • Wreath-laying at Arlington National Cemetery: The incoming president and vice president visit Arlington to honor the soldiers who gave their lives for the country, on the day before Inauguration.
  • The ride from the White House to the Capitol: The old and new presidents and first ladies gather for coffee at the White House and then they ride together to the ceremony.
  • Swearing-in ceremony: After the vice president-elect is sworn in, the president-elect takes the oath of office, administered by the chief justice of the Supreme Court. The new president then delivers his Inaugural Address.
  • Inaugural luncheon: The United States Congress traditionally holds a luncheon in Statuary Hall to honor the new head of state. The choice of menu is usually linked to the new president’s heritage.
  • Presidential procession to the White House and parade: The president and the vice president and their spouses lead a parade from the Capitol to the White House along Pennsylvania Avenue, and then review the parade from a stage at the edge of the front lawn.

Newer traditions include:

  • Singing of the National Anthem or patriotic song: Beyoncé famously sang the National Anthem at the first Obama inaugural. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has sung at five, including President Trump’s.
  • An inaugural poem: The first poet invited, by John F. Kennedy, was Robert Frost. He recited an older poem of his when he could not read in the glare of sunlight. Poet Amanda Gorman, at age 22, will read at the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.

Activities:

  1. Review the basic information above about presidential inaugurations. Play the portion of the famous FDR inaugural address.
  2. Ask the students to select or invent new elements of the ceremony, including finding a poem, song or other art that fits the moment and conveys what message they would want to send to a nation in a time of crisis. They may also choose singers or celebrity speakers who they think would be able to help deliver a needed message.
  3. Assign crafting an inaugural speech for homework, referring to the prompts of former presidents. You can use this EXTRA lesson to help craft an inaugural address.

Optional: Send your speech to PBS NewsHour EXTRA! We would love to read your speech and share your inaugural ceremony ideas with others over social media. You can email them to us directly or have your teacher tag @NewsHourEXTRA and use the hashtag #PBSInaugurationSpeech.


Syd Golston is a past president of the National Council for the Social Studies. She has served as a history teacher, school administrator, and curriculum writer for many decades. She is the author of Changing Woman of the Apache, Death Penalty, Studies in Arizona History and other publications and articles.


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  • Standards

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    Relevant National Standards:
      Common Core Standards
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.1: Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.9: Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

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