A Fly-By Lesson on U.S. Presidential Inaugurations

By Sutherland, Karen | The World and I, January 2009 | Go to article overview

A Fly-By Lesson on U.S. Presidential Inaugurations


Sutherland, Karen, The World and I


Inauguration: The word rings with visions of parades and parties and history. On January 20, 2009 we will again inaugurate a President of the United States. The inauguration will be a historical event with the first African American to ever enter the office.

Because the United States Constitution doesn't tell much about what it should be like--only a date and a 35-word oath of office, each inauguration has been as unique as the man elected and has carried his stamp.

Dwight D. Eisenhower's inaugural parade was the longest in our history--four hours and 39 minutes. The president even allowed himself to be lassoed by cowboy Monte Montana, causing Secret Service some anxious moments. But Eisenhower was determined to enjoy every minute of it. Approximately 25,000 people marched in his parade. There were even three elephants to represent the Republican Party.

Eisenhower's parade certainly wasn't the first inaugural parade, or the first to be televised. The first true inaugural parade was for William Henry Harrison in 1841. Harry Truman's (1949) was the first on television. It wasn't President Eisenhower's first inaugural parade either; he marched in President Woodrow Wilson's as a West Point Cadet in 1913. One other noteworthy event was Jimmy Carter's decision to walk the entire parade route after his inauguration at the Capitol.

Since 1809 there has almost always been some sort of a parade. The only exceptions were for Franklin Pierce (1853) because he had just lost his son, and Warren G. Harding (1921). Harding thought it would be too difficult for Woodrow Wilson, who had recently had a stroke. There was also no parade in 1945 during World War II.

Today the inauguration is held in Washington, D.C. But not all inaugurations have been there. George Washington's two inaugurations were held in New York before Washington, D.C., existed. And while John Adams was the first president to live in the White House, he wasn't inaugurated in Washington, D.C., either. Thomas Jefferson was the first to take the oath in the new capitol city.

For most of the early presidents, inauguration occurred on March 4 (in the year following the election)--as specified in the Constitution. George Washington's first inauguration, however, wasn't until April 30, 1789. The ballots for presidential candidates must be counted in the presence of Congress, and only twenty-four (out of fifty-nine) Congressmen were present on March 4 when that counting was to occur. It wasn't done until April 6. Then someone had to go to Virginia to notify Washington of the results and he had to come for the inauguration. Washington hoped to make a quick trip to New York, but everywhere he went people turned out by the hundreds to welcome and cheer for him.

Of those who were sworn in on other days, most of the time it was due to a president having died in office, or March 4 falling on a Sunday. In 1876, for example, in the election between Tilden and Hayes, there was a lot of controversy, similar to the election of 2000. Because there were many charges of fraud and Tilden followers felt the election had been stolen from him, there was talk of Tilden supporters taking the presidency by force.

Because of this, and March 4 falling on a Sunday, outgoing President Ulysses S. Grant, didn't want the country to be without a president for one day. So on March 3, he invited Chief Just Waite and Mr. Hayes to the White House for dinner. After dinner, the Chief Justice inaugurated Mr. Hayes. So for 24 hours our country had two Presidents of the United States .

In the 20th century, Congress grew concerned about the length of time between the election and the inauguration. It no longer took so much time for the results to be known and the winner to be notified. Also Congress felt that an outgoing president spent too much time in office after the people had elected a new leader. So the date was changed, by the 16th amendment to the Constitution, to January 20.

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