Valdosta Daily Times

January 20, 2013

The Oath: A look at presidential inaugurations

Dean Poling
The Valdosta Daily Times

- — Barack Obama’s taking the presidential oath continues a tradition nearly as old as the United States government created by the Constitution.

It is the administration of the constitutional oath swearing in a president.

This oath has often been accompanied by the pageantry and public accessibility of inaugurations. It has been solemnly administered, minus the inaugural grandeur, when vice presidents have had to quickly step into the role of a fallen president.

Presidential inaugurations have been administered in times of peace and prosperity, war and depression. It has welcomed dozens of men into the presidency, but only a few presidents, such as George Washington and now Barack Obama, have enjoyed more than one inaugural.

Some inaugurations — be it for the speech, the president himself, or some significant event — are more noteworthy than others.

Obama’s last inauguration was noteworthy because he was the nation’s first black president. It was also noteworthy because Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts recited the oath improperly, leading him to administer it again to Obama a day later in a private ceremony.

But in some way, each presidential inauguration is memorable in representing the peaceful transfer or continuation of elected power.

* In the late 1700s, the Constitution provided the basics for what an American president should be. Perhaps the only given of that era was that George Washington, champion of the American Revolutionary War and chairman of the Constitutional Convention, would be the first president. What the Constitution did note of the presidency, it did so with Washington in mind. As for what a president could be, Washington created the template for numerous presidential precedents for the years to come, including the basics of the presidential inauguration. Since no one was certain if a president was something like a king or an elected executive, some advisors, even Washington briefly, felt he should arrive for his oath of office wearing a gold uniform, riding in a grand carriage drawn by numerous horses. A simpler mode of conveyance was selected, but a sense of grandeur remained with the procession to Federal Hall in New York, which was then the nation’s capital. People lined the streets as Washington made his way to take the oath on April 30, 1789. Of the procession, Washington reportedly noted, “My movements to the chair of government (are) accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.”

On the balcony of Federal Hall, Washington raised his hand to take the oath. Below, many in the large crowd could not hear the first time the presidential oath was uttered, though some heard the words which each president has uttered ever since.

Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution states the oath as: “I (usually followed by the president-elect’s name) 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.”

Washington took the oath with his hand on a Bible, which is not required by the Constitution, though all presidents have since followed this tradition. Perhaps feeling the great responsibility of what he was doing, by becoming the first executive officer of a revolutionary representative government, legend claims Washington uttered four words. These words are not an official part of the oath, but each president has concluded the oath with them since Washington spoke them 220 years ago: “So help me God.”

* After two inaugurations and two terms as president, Washington declined to seek a third term. During his second term, factions had formed within the government which would lead to America’s tradition of a two-party political system.

In 1796, John Adams, Washington’s vice president, was elected to the presidency. To secure the transfer of power, Washington attended Adams’ March 4, 1797 inauguration to assure the public that he approved of the transfer of power.

This peaceful transfer of executive power astonished the world. But, in many ways, it would be the inauguration of 1801 that guaranteed the precedent of a peaceful transfer of power.

President Adams wanted a second term, but he lost to his vice president, former friend and bitter political rival, Thomas Jefferson. Though Adams hated seeing Jefferson rise to the presidency on the back of his defeat, Adams still stepped aside. He did not accompany Jefferson to the ceremony. Dejected and angry, Adams left the capital, which was now the young Washington, D.C., the night before Jefferson’s inauguration. But he made no effort to bar or stall the inauguration of his political opponent, securing the precedent of a peaceful transfer of power between opposing parties.

* On March 4, 1829, Andrew Jackson took the oath of office in what was called “the people’s inaugural.” Congressional wrangling cost Jackson the presidential election four years earlier, even though he’d won the popular vote. So, Jackson viewed his election and inauguration in 1828 and 1829 as not only his redemption but the redemption of the people.

Following his inauguration, Jackson opened the White House to the general public. Thousands of visitors trampled the lawn to mud, while treading this mud throughout the White House. Twenty spittoons were installed in the East Room. The people tore down curtains, shattered glass, and climbed on the furniture. Men fought each other throughout the White House. Women swooned. Who would expect any less from Jackson, the man who would campaign for re-election in 1832 with the slogan “Let the people rule”?

* William Henry Harrison’s inaugural is arguably the most notorious inauguration in American history.

During the campaign, opponents had accused Harrison of being too old for the presidency. Harrison had battled this perception throughout the hard-fought campaign of 1840, which left him fatigued and frail.

His inauguration fell upon a windy and cold March 4, 1841. Concerned about perceptions of his vitality, he refused to wear a coat, gloves or hat to deliver his inaugural address. Outdoors, poorly dressed for the weather, Harrison delivered the longest inaugural speech in presidential history before or since. Harrison became ill. The illness persisted. A month after his inauguration, Harrison died.

* Since John Adams, the inauguration had been held on March 4, often March 5 if the 4th fell upon a Sunday. In 1933, however, the ratification of the 20th Amendment changed the inauguration date when it stated in Section 1 that a president and vice president’s terms come to an end at noon on the Jan. 20 following an election. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second inauguration in 1937 was the first one held on a Jan. 20, a date which continues today.

* Inaugurations have also contributed to some of the most memorable words of many presidencies within American history. Often these words are uttered in the speeches of presidents who have given more than one inaugural speech. Still, many inaugural addresses have spoken to the people of their times but have little meaning to future generations.

George Washington: He gave an extensive speech during his first inauguration, but his second speech is one of the shortest in inaugural history at approximately 135 words.

Thomas Jefferson: In his first inaugural address, Jefferson tried healing the bitterness of the divisive 1800 election by speaking to both factions of the developing political parties. “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”

John Quincy Adams: Having lost the popular vote but winning the presidency through a congressional deal and subsequently the Electoral College, Adams said, “... I am deeply conscious of the prospect that I shall stand more and oftener in need of your indulgence.”

Abraham Lincoln: Following four years of war and winning a re-election, Abraham Lincoln gave one of the shortest inaugural addresses in history but also one of the most powerful, eloquent and memorable, concluding, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt: With America plunged in the poverty, unemployment and despair of the Great Depression, Roosevelt spoke one of the most famous lines of any inaugural address. “ ... the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Roosevelt is the only president elected four times, thus having four inaugural addresses. It is interesting to note that each address is shorter than the previous one.

John F. Kennedy: Kennedy also gave one of the most memorable lines of an inaugural address, though it is often misquoted. On Jan. 20, 1961, Kennedy said, “And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

George H.W. Bush: The first President Bush made a “kinder, gentler nation” a theme of his inaugural speech, with the words, “We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world.”