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Inaugural History

Beginning with General George Washington’s 1789 inauguration in New York City, many presidents have added their own unique traditions that will continue into 2001.

The oath of office is the main focus of the inauguration ceremony and the only part required by law. In Article II, Section 1, of the U.S. Constitution, the founding fathers provided an oath of office for the President-elect’s official swearing in. This 35-word vow has not changed since the 18th century.

“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will try to the best of my ability, to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

George Washington added the phrase “so help me God” to the end of his oath, and almost every president has added it since. He also followed his swearing-in with the first inaugural address — another tradition most presidents have also adopted.

“The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people,” Washington said.

washington oath

During his second inauguration, Washington received his oath from William Cushing, an associate justice of the Supreme Court who was the first in a long line of members of the court to perform the ceremony. Washington also set the precedent of kissing the Bible after taking the oath of office. Although most presidents use a Bible, some presidents have opted to affirm their oath rather than swear to it.

Thomas Jefferson was the first president to be sworn in as president in Washington DC, which did not officially become the US capital until 1801. After Jefferson’s second inauguration, he rode on horseback from the Capitol to the President’s house surrounded by mechanics from the nearby Navy Yard and military band music. This procession grew into the current-day Inaugural Parade.

The parade, like most of the ceremony, often reflects the tastes of the incoming Commander in Chief. Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 parade included almost 35,000 participants, from cowboys to miners and his old Spanish-American war Calvary regiment, the Rough Riders, on horseback. Many inaugural parades include military and marching bands, tumblers, cheerleaders, and floats representing all aspects of American life.

Inauguration Day was originally set for March 4, giving electors from each state nearly four months after Election Day to cast their ballots for president. In 1933, the day of inauguration was changed by constitutional amendment from March 4 to Jan. 20 to speed the changeover of administrations.

George Washington’s first inauguration was held outside but the tradition did not hold until Andrew Jackson became president in 1829. Since then, the ceremony has been held outdoors except in cases of extreme weather. On March 4, 1841, William Henry Harrison showed enthusiasm for the office he won at age 68 by delivering the longest inauguration speech in history – 8,600 words at 90 minutes – in a driving ice storm. He was dead from pneumonia within a month.

The ceremony moved from the Capitol’s East Front to the West Front during Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural in 1981. He wanted to face west to symbolize his connection to California, his home state where he served as governor for seven years. The next presidents, Bush and Clinton, were inaugurated at the West Front as well, which has more room for
hundreds of thousands of spectators to witness the event on the National Mall.

ronald reagan

Although Washington did have an informal ball after his inauguration, the first official Inaugural Ball was held in honor of James Madison. As more people wanted to share in the festivities, later inaugurals included multiple public balls throughout the capitol and some in other cities. No fewer than nine Inaugural Balls will be held to honor President Bush later this month.

Many presidents have walked to or from their inaugural ceremonies to show their affinity with the American people. Thomas Jefferson walked from his boarding house to the unfinished Capitol Building during his first inauguration and back for dinner. Jimmy Carter was the first president to walk from the Capitol to the White House after the ceremony. Both George Bush in 1989 and Bill Clinton in 1993 each stepped out of their limousines to welcome well-wishers along the parade route.

In 1961, poet Robert Frost read his poem “The Gift Outright” at the inauguration of John Kennedy. Nearly thirty years later, Bill Clinton revived the tradition to honor Kennedy. Arkansas-native and poet Maya Angelou read her poem entitled “The Rock Cries Out To Us Today” in 1993. Arkansas poet Miller Williams read “Of History and Hope” at Clinton’s 1997 inaugural.

President-elect Bush will have the chance to put his own personal touch on the inaugural ceremony by continuing these traditions and perhaps initiating new ones. The theme for this year’s inaugural will be “Celebrating America’s Spirit Together” and will incorporate some events of the past including an Inauguration Day church service, the swearing-in at the Capitol, the inaugural parade and eight inaugural balls.

Three separate organizations are responsible for planning the modern inauguration. Various military groups provide logistical support and also have a role in the ceremony itself. The Presidential Inaugural Committee has final say on nearly every detail, down to the music played by the Army and Marine bands. The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies handles most events at the Capitol.

On the actual day of inauguration, people travel from across the country to view both the swearing-in and
the inaugural parade. Bill Clinton’s second inaugural had almost 250,000 people in attendance and over 6,000 marchers in the parade. Hundreds of school groups, political junkies and marching bands spend months raising money, making the trip to Washington D.C. to bear witness to the ascension of a new American president.

President-elect Bush will be sworn in as the 43rd President of the United States on January 20, 2001. The day after inaugural, Bush will host an open house at the White House allowing the public a glimpse inside Bush’s new home.

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