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Everything you wanted to know about presidential inaugurals
The Inaugural Ceremony
Inaugurations are organized by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.
All presidents must be sworn in, which involves taking the oath of the office. The oath is listed in Article II of the U.S. Constitution: "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."
The Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court administers the oath of office.
Presidential inaugurals used to be held on March 4 but, beginning in 1937 with the 20th Amendment, were changed to January 20 (at noon) in order to limit the length of time between the election and inauguration.
The inauguration is held at the West Front of the U.S. Capitol. Beginning with the inauguration of Martin Van Buren in 1837, the ceremony was held at the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol, but was changed to its present location for the inauguration of Ronald Reagan in 1981 in order to accommodate larger audiences.
Not all presidents have used the East Portico or West Front of the Capitol. For instance, a few presidents were sworn in from the House chambers in the Capitol Building. Because the capital city was not yet built, George Washington was sworn in on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City in 1789, then in the Senate chambers of Congress Hall in Philadelphia for his second inaugural in 1793.
The inauguration also includes an address by the new president, a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House, and the playing of "Hail, Columbia" (or "Hail to the Chief") by a military band, who also welcomes the new president with four "ruffles and flourishes" (drums and bugles).
Did you know?
George Washington postponed the very first inaugural in 1789 until April 30 because Congress was delayed by weather and the lack of a reliable system for communicating. His wife did not arrive until after the inauguration.
The shortest inaugural address was 135 words by George Washington in 1793.
The longest inaugural address was by William Henry Harrison at nearly 8,500 words in 1841. Because Harrison, at the time the oldest president, was trying to prove that he was not too old to be president, he declined to wear his hat, gloves, or scarf despite the bitter cold weather. After a roughly two hour-long ceremony, Harrison caught cold and died one month later.
Scholars consider John Kennedy's 1961 address and both of Abraham Lincoln's (1861 and 1865) addresses to be the best inaugural addresses in history.
Some presidents, such as John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and Chester A. Arthur, gave no inaugural addresses because they assumed office after the death of their predecessors.
Because of the Second World War, poor weather, and his own declining health, Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his fourth inaugural address in 1944 from the White House.
Franklin Pierce in 1853 chose to use the word "affirm" rather than "swear" while repeating the oath of the office. Pierce also delivered his inaugural address without notes.
Thomas Jefferson walked to and from his inaugural, the only president ever to do so. Jimmy Carter walked all the way from the Capitol back to the White House in 1977. Because of security, presidents today cannot walk the entire distance of the parade. However, they stop the presidential motorcade to get out and walk a symbolic distance of the parade.
Ronald Reagan is the only president not to walk in the inaugural parade. In 1985, the weather was too cold to do so.
Abraham Lincoln, in 1865, was the first president to invite blacks to participate in the inauguration. Woodrow Wilson, in 1917, was the first to invite women to participate.
Inaugural day is a holiday in the capital city. Allowing workers to stay home helps relieve the traffic for the ceremony.
If inaugural day falls on a Sunday, the president is sworn in during a private ceremony the day prior and a public ceremony is held on Monday. The first time this happened was in 1877 for the inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes. The inaugurals of Woodrow Wilson in 1917 and, more recently, Ronald Reagan in 1985 fell on Sundays. Reagan held his private swearing in at the North Entrance of the White House before participating in the usual large, public ceremony on Monday.
Four presidents died in office of natural causes, four others were assassinated, and Richard Nixon resigned from office. Their successors must still be sworn in, but have opted for more subdued and private ceremonies. For example, after Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974, Gerald Ford took the oath in the East Room of the White House. Both John Tyler and Andrew Johnson were sworn in at hotels on Pennsylvania Avenue in the capital city, Chester A. Arthur at his private residence in New York City, and Harry Truman from the White House's Cabinet Room.
After John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in aboard Air Force One while on the tarmac of Love Field in Dallas. Because there was not time to summon the Supreme Court Chief Justice, the oath was administered by Sarah Hughes, a U.S. district court judge from Texas.
After Warren G. Harding's death in 1923, White House aides had trouble locating Vice President Calvin Coolidge, who was eventually found at his father's home in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. The oath was administered with the family Bible from the living room by Coolidge's father, who was the local justice of the peace.
Presidents are sworn in with a Bible. George Washington added the words "so help me God" at the end of the oath and then kissed the Bible. Other presidents have followed his custom. A few, however, such as Dwight Eisenhower in 1953, did not kiss the Bible. Ike also added his own prayer after the oath.
Some presidents, such as Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, have used family Bibles for the oath. John Kennedy used a Catholic version of the Bible. Other presidents have used historic Bibles, such as Jimmy Carter who used George Washington's Bible.
It is still uncertain as to whether or not Theodore Roosevelt used a Bible while taking the oath in 1901 at the private home of Ansley Wilcox after the sudden death of President William McKinley.
Some presidents pick a favorite passage from the Bible to be read at the ceremony. Several presidents have selected verses from Psalms and Proverbs.
Every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 attends religious services the morning of the inauguration. Likewise, it is customary that, after the inauguration, the new president and vice president join the Congress for a luncheon.
Inaugurating the 44th President
Barack Obama's inauguration is only days before the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. Obama is drawing inspiration from Lincoln during his inaugural by using Lincoln's Bible (from 1861) for the oath and taking a train ride before the inaugural similar to that completed by Lincoln. The theme of Obama's inauguration is "A New Birth of Freedom," the same theme used by Lincoln for his second inauguration and his famous Gettysburg Address.
A record crowd of 3 to 4 million is expected for Obama's inauguration, which will shatter the previous high of 1 million people in attendance at Lyndon Johnson's 1965 inauguration.
The first African American president has invited to the inaugural surviving members of the famous Tuskeegee Airmen, the first all-black squadron.
There are now many inaugural balls held in the capital city and around the nation. Obama is expected to attend several of them in Washington, DC, including the Commander-in-Chief's Ball, held for Purple Heart recipients and the families of fallen soldiers.
Inaugurations cost millions of dollars. There is no limit to contributions and individuals and large corporations have helped to fund the ceremonies. Many big corporations gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to George W. Bush's inauguration in 2000. Mindful of the harmful appearance of such large donations, Obama's Inaugural Committee set a limit on donations from any one person or business at $80,000.
Beginning with John Kennedy, inaugurations have featured performances and an array of events. Obama will feature such noted performers as cellist Yo Yo Ma, violinist Itzhak Perlman, and singer Aretha Franklin. There will be a reading by poet Elizabeth Alexander, music from the US Marine Corps Band, and a composition celebrated composer John Williams. A local touch will be added when the marching band from Obama's former high school in Hawaii will participate in the inaugural parade.
Like any inauguration, there are controversies and concerns. The first president to use a glass-enclosed stand for security was William McKinley in 1897. Such measures will be employed for Obama's inauguration. Obama's effort to reach out to those who may not have voted for him by selecting pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation has generated criticism from some Obama supporters concerned about Warren's opposition to gay rights, abortion, and many other core Democratic issues. Lastly, Obama has indicated he might honor tradition by using his full name including his middle name of "Hussein" in the inauguration, despite the fact that some of his Republican opponents tried during the campaign to use the name to portray the candidate as un-American or as a terrorist.