Inauguration Belongs to the People, Not the Rich

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), January 20, 2005 | Go to article overview

Inauguration Belongs to the People, Not the Rich


Byline: Matthew Dennis ForThe Register-Guard

In the United States' first presidential inauguration, George Washington arrived in New York City dramatically by water. He was received like a triumphant king. Yet Americans inaugurated a republic on that day in 1789, even if they treated Washington as royalty.

From the time of their first George to George the 43rd, Americans would continue to negotiate the tension between an imperial presidency and democracy. And in the 54 inaugurations that followed Washington's near coronation, we can trace the country's shifting politics, changing circumstances and developing character.

The essence of the inauguration is an oath of office, as mandated in the 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." Nothing more is required; everything else is elaboration and tradition, even the "so help me God" added by Washington.

Washington's unique status made it difficult to separate the great man from the office. When the charisma-challenged John Adams assumed the presidency in 1797, the difference became clear. Few Americans favored him with the pomp and circumstance reserved for the demigod Washington. After the vicious election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson used his inauguration to reject "royalism" and "idolatry" and to signal a new democratic spirit. Citizen Jefferson donned plain clothes and walked to his inauguration.

Andrew Jackson's 1829 inauguration furthered Jefferson's democratic themes, but not his calls for simplicity. A "people's inauguration" celebrated Gen. Jackson as a self-made, Western hero. Thousands cheered wildly and elbowed aside invited dignitaries to see their champion. At the White House, the crowd muddied furniture, smashed glassware, ruined carpets and shredded draperies. Jackson adviser Amos Kendall declared it "a proud day for the people," but Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story said, "the reign of King Mob seems triumphant."

With each passing administration, inaugurations became more elaborate. Only in times of emergency have they assumed the spartan form suggested by the Constitution, as when a vice president is elevated by the death or assassination of a sitting president. John Tyler gave no inauguration speech and had no ball, for example, after the demise of President William Henry Harrison, not a month into his term in 1841. …

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