Inaugurations Past: Uniquely Washington
I Do Solemnly Swear…
It wasn’t until Franklin Roosevelt’s second term that presidential inaugurations were moved to Jan. 20. Before that, they didn’t take place until March 4, which seems like a very long time after the election. While the present November election date wasn’t made official until 1845, and the inauguration didn’t move to Jan. 20 until 1937. If we go back as far as the first presidential election, the electoral votes were counted sometime between November and December and by the time news reached Mount Vernon and George Washington was able to travel to New York, the swearing in didn’t take place until April 20. John Adams, the first vice president, had chosen the title “His Most Benign Highness” for the first president, but the congressmen who were assembled in New York changed it to “President of the United States.” The first president to be inaugurated in Washington, Thomas Jefferson, was also the first to institute a White House reception after the ceremony to meet and greet well-wishers. When Andrew Jackson hosted the same event after his inauguration, about 20,000 of his ardent fans stormed the White house, breaking china and furniture, and Jackson had to escape through a window to safety. For his second inaugural, Lincoln was said to shake hands with 6,000 well-wishers at his White House reception, and this, as it turned out, was just a few weeks before he was assassinated.
The outdoors grandstand was introduced by Grover Cleveland, when it became clear that there would be too many people wanting to share in the event to fit into the reception rooms of the White House. The first inaugural ball was instituted by Washington’s first famous hostess, Dolley Madison. In 1857, James Buchanan’s inaugural was the first to be photographed, and 40 years later, William McKinley’s was the first to be recorded on film. In 1925, Americans listened to the radio as Calvin Coolidge was sworn in, and Harry Truman’s inauguration in 1947 was the first to be televised. Bill Clinton’s inauguration was the first to have a website and be carried live on the Internet.
The biggest crowd ever attending an inauguration was in 2008, when 1.8 million people crowded into the National Mall area, sometimes standing for hours in the cold and dark, waiting for daybreak, to witness the swearing in of the first African-American president, Barack Obama.
Famous and unforgettable phrases that stay in our memories and help define our history came from inaugural speeches.
In his second inaugural, Lincoln promised to “bind up the nation’s wounds” with “malice toward none” and “charity for all.” In the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt assured the American people that they had “nothing to fear but fear itself.”
at the dawn of what felt like a new age, John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”
When George Washington took the presidential oath 224 years ago, he recited the required pledge: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” He added, perhaps reflexively, ”…so help me God.”
Every president, at every swearing in since, has added this phrase, all of them knowing that they will surely need all the help they can get.