Since 1789, inauguration has held special symbolic place in civic life

Knight Ridder NewspapersJanuary 17, 2005 

WASHINGTON — Some have been inspiring and many have been as dull as dishwater. A few have been short; one was long enough to kill the featured guest. They've included the revered and the reviled. Many have touched the soul with poetry; one included an assassin in the audience, stalking his prey.

They're the inaugurations of the American president, a quadrennial rite that's changed dramatically since the first in 1789 while maintaining the core meaning that gives it a singular symbolic place in America's civic culture.

"An election is a very divisive period. The inauguration is a period of reuniting," Senate historian Don Ritchie said. "The idea is to pull the country together, hopefully with an uplifting address. Both parties are involved. All the branches of the government come together. It may not last very long, but it is a moment of unity."

The centerpiece of all the pomp and pageantry is the oath of office, a 35-word vow written into the Constitution by the Founding Fathers. After saying it in 1789 at the first inauguration, George Washington established several precedents that have been followed through the centuries.

"So help me God," Washington said in his own addition to the oath, and he kissed the Bible. Most of his successors have done the same.

The second most visible part of the inaugural festivities is the speech.

The Constitution doesn't require a speech, but Washington set the precedent for that as well. He gave his oration to a joint session of Congress in New York, then the U.S. capital, and urged the adoption of a bill of rights as well as a "divine blessing" on the new country.

At their best, inaugural addresses have stirred the nation, often marking turning points in history.

Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural in 1865 is widely considered the best, an eloquent plea for mercy and unity in a country about to emerge from civil war.

"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," Lincoln said on March 4, 1865.

Taking office amid the Great Depression on March 4, 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt used his address to summon confidence. "This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper," Roosevelt said. "So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

In January 1961, John F. Kennedy used his address to raise the stakes in the Cold War against the Soviet Union, in words that in hindsight presaged the costs of the Vietnam War. "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty," Kennedy said."

Most have been more forgettable. "A lot of inaugural addresses don't meet the standards of time," Ritchie said. "They're fairly dismal to read."

Inaugural speeches have varied in length as well as quality.

Washington's second, delivered in Philadelphia in 1793, was the shortest, at 135 words.

William Henry Harrison, 68, stood outside for two hours during an ice storm when he delivered the longest speech in history, 8,445 words. Soon after, he developed a cold that turned into pneumonia and he died.

Some inaugurals have used other speakers to inspire the country. Kennedy called on poet Robert Frost. Bill Clinton in 1993 invited Maya Angelou to read a poem she wrote for the occasion.

Others have included signs of darkness.

On March 4, 1865, John Wilkes Booth attended Lincoln's inauguration. A Washington official later said a man who tried to reach Lincoln as he walked through the Capitol rotunda en route to his inaugural was Booth. "My theory is that he meant to rush up behind the president and assassinate him," the official said. Booth can be seen in the audience in photographs of the inauguration.

A little more than a month later, Booth assassinated Lincoln at Ford's Theatre in Washington.

In 1877, Rep. James Garfield feared that President Rutherford B. Hayes might be killed during his inauguration parade from the Capitol to the White House. "There were many indications of relief and joy that no accident had occurred on the route for there were apprehensions of assassination," Garfield wrote in his diary that day. Four years later, Garfield himself was elected president, and he was assassinated several months afterward.

How people participate in inaugurals — and how they hear about them — has changed dramatically.

Washington's inaugural was delayed from the scheduled date of March 4, 1789, because bad weather kept members of Congress from traveling to New York. Congress didn't count the Electoral College votes and notify Washington of his win until April 6. By the time he got there, it was April 30.

The public got to watch Washington take the oath on an outdoor balcony, but he delivered his address inside to members of Congress and invited dignitaries.

It wasn't until 1819 that James Monroe became the first to take the oath and deliver his inaugural address outdoors. In 1925, Calvin Coolidge became the first to give his address via radio. In 1949, Harry Truman was the first seen and heard over television. In 1997, Clinton was the first to have his oath and address broadcast live via the Internet.

While the ceremonies and inaugural balls always have been filled with the wealthy and powerful, ordinary Americans occasionally have been invited.

In 1829, Andrew Jackson opened the White House and grounds, which were soon overrun with 20,000 drunken revelers. Jackson fled to a hotel while White House aides set vats filled with whiskey on the lawn to lure partygoers out of the Executive Mansion.

The public regularly was welcomed into the White House after the inaugurations until Grover Cleveland took office in 1885.

ON THE WEB

For more on inauguration history on the Web, go to the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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