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Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller administering the oath of office to Benjamin Harrison on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol, March 4, 1889

[Detail] Administering the oath of office to Benjamin Harrison, 1889.

"I Do Solemnly Swear . . .": Presidential Inaugurations, contains diaries, poems, and drafts of historic speeches that lend themselves to discussions of personal and formal accounts of historic events. These primary sources provide an opportunity to investigate subjectivity in personal narratives and public speeches as well as to develop an understanding of the role of the printed word as part of the inaugural ceremony itself.

Diaries and Memoirs

A search on diary yields the recollections of presidents, other politicians, and general citizens that provide the opportunity to examine how personal writings contribute to the documentation of inaugurations. For example, Pennsylvania Senator William Maclay's April 30, 1789 journal entry recalls George Washington's first inaugural address. Maclay describes the president as being “agitated and embarrassed more than ever he was by the leveled cannon or pointed musket.” Sarah Ridg's 1809 Diary describes life in Alexandria, Virginia, near the beginning of the nineteenth century and includes an account of James Madison's inauguration as well as a description of the Capitol building that was later destroyed by the British. A president's own personal writings are also available in President James Garfield's March 4, 1873 entry describing President Grant's inauguration and his March 3 and 4, 1881 entries, written as he prepared for his own inauguration.

Irwin H. Hoover worked as an usher at the White House for forty-two years. His March 4, 1913 memoir provides an opportunity to examine a personal writing style. Hoover recounted the last day of President Taft's administration from inside the White House, including such details as the replacement of one American flag with a new one, the departure of the Tafts, and concerns of White House employees about their status in Woodrow Wilson's incoming administration:

For four long months this time that was now so near at hand had been looked forward too, talked about and in a measure been dreaded. Still it was her and everyone must make the best of it. Employees who had been around the place for 12, 16, 18, 22 years and longer were no different from those who had been there but a few years and some only months.

  • How do these diary entries contribute to an understanding of the inaugurations they describe?
  • What does a diary convey that speeches, photographs, and newspaper articles do not?
  • How does the private nature of a diary affect the way that it is read? Why?
  • Would these writers have changed their styles or the content of these pieces if they had been going directly to a public audience? What would they have left out, rephrased, or added? Why?