Presidents as Tradition Creators and Tradition Keepers

By Starr, Kenneth | Faulkner Law Review, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

Presidents as Tradition Creators and Tradition Keepers


Starr, Kenneth, Faulkner Law Review


I. INTRODUCTION

On January 20, 2017, America paused to celebrate the inauguration of our nation's 45th President. The November 2016 election resulted in an enormous surprise. Although the former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, commanded a three million popular vote advantage, our federal system--with the Electoral College standing as a bulwark protection of small states' political power--carried the day for the disruptive candidate who had never sought political office. (1) Donald Trump's election proved, yet again, that in America anything can happen.

President Trump's speech will long be remembered for its unprecedentedly harsh tone and the ensuing controversy over the size of the crowds gathered around the National Mall. The few unremarkable moments of the day included those trappings, such as the morning inaugural parade and evening balls, which have over the centuries become customary for the inaugural-occasion.

One lesser-known tradition takes place at a small, historic parish located directly across Lafayette Square from the White House. In 1933 Franklin Delano Roosevelt began the practice of worshipping at St. John's Episcopal Church on inauguration morning, which has been followed by every incoming President since. Since it opened in 1816, every sitting American President has visited "the Church of the Presidents"; there is even a pew reserved for the nation's leader and his family. (2)

The sermon that President-elect Trump heard at St. John's on inauguration morning included a quotation from a speech by Ronald Reagan while he was in Dallas for the 1984 Republican National Convention, which serves as an apt segue into the basic thesis of this essay: Presidents act as tradition creators and tradition keepers. With the tone of an Old-Testament prophet, Reagan admonished the crowd, "[America needs God more than God needs America]. If we ever forget that we ['re] one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under." (3)

The Constitution is stonily silent on inaugural parades and balls. Indeed, not even inaugural speeches are required by the Constitution: Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in during a hastily-arranged ceremony in Air Force One following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Obviously, there is nothing about an inaugural worship service in the Constitution. Some observers would doubtless view such an official part of inauguration day as contra-indicated by the text of the First Amendment and the unifying principle of the separation of church and state. Yet, even from the very beginning, the textually required inaugural oath has been embellished by extra-textual symbols and traditions.

The country's first inaugural ceremony took place at Federal Hall in New York on April 30, 1789. At 9:00 a.m. that morning New York's church bells began ringing, and continued to do so for half an hour. Local newspapers anticipated the significance of this event: "[T]he bells will ring at nine o'clock, when the people may go up to the house of God and in a solemn manner commit the new government, with its important train of consequences, to the holy protection and blessing of the Most High." (4)

At 2:00 p.m. George Washington placed his hand on a 1767 King James Bible--acquired at the last minute from St. John's masonic lodge nearby--and recited the oath administered to him by the Chancellor of New York, Robert Livingston. After completing the constitutionally-obligatory oath, Washington reportedly kissed the Bible reverently, closed his eyes in an attitude of devotion, and whispered: "So help me God." (5) This common account credits Washington with inspiring the longstanding tradition of ending the Presidential oath by admonishing God's blessing and aid.

After finishing the oath, Livingston turned to the buzzing street below and shouted, "Long live George Washington... President of the United States!" (6) The church bells pealed back in celebration. …

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