Although the Constitution includes the inaugural oath, it does not dictate where that oath should take place. On April 27, 1789, the Senate's Inaugural Committee on Ceremony decided to hold the first oath in an "outer gallery adjoining the Senate Chamber." This gallery, part of a balcony in New York City's Federal Hall, overlooked Wall and Broad streets and provided the public with a chance to witness George Washington's inauguration.
Miss Eliza Quincy watched the ceremony from a nearby rooftop. Her account appeared in Century Magazine's 1889 article, "The Inauguration of Washington." She describes the event in her diary:
"The windows and the roofs of the houses were crowded, and in the streets the throng was so dense that it seemed as if one might literally walk on the heads of the people...In the center of [the balcony] was placed a table with a rich covering of red velvet, and upon this, on a crimson velvet cushion, lay a large and elegant Bible....[Washington's] appearance was most solemn and dignified. ...Chancellor Livingston read the oath...and Washington repeated it, resting his hand upon the table. Mr. Otis, the Secretary of the Senate, then took the Bible and raised it to the lips of Washington, who stooped and kissed the book. ...All the bells in the city rang out a peal of joy, and the assembled multitude sent forth a universal shout. The President again bowed to the people, and then retired from a scene such as the proudest monarch never enjoyed."
Eliza contrasts a president and a monarch. America was establishing a democracy...a nation ruled by the "people." Why was this of special significance at this time? What are the differences in leadership between a monarch and a president? As our nation has evolved,certain American families have appeared to dominate local and national politics. How does this dynastic dominance differ from "royalty"? Is the difference important? Why?
The first inauguration was postponed from March 4 to April 30, 1789. Congressional members were delayed in arriving in New York City and, despite a unanimous victory for George Washington, electoral ballots weren't counted on time. As history shows, delays and controversies in elections are nothing new.
While traveling from Mount Vernon to New York City, the newly elected president was celebrated in several cities. This illustration of Gray's Ferry near Philadelphia appeared in Columbian Magazine with an article detailing the inaugural preparation.
Washington's second inauguration was held on March 4, 1793. This remained the standard inauguration date for over one hundred years. In accordance with the Constitution's twentieth amendment, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's second inauguration in 1937 was the first to occur on January 20.
James Monroe held his second inauguration indoors because of snow and rain, but inclement weather didn't always change the ceremony site.
In 1841, William Henry Harrison rode to his inauguration in a rainstorm. It rained throughout his inaugural ceremony at the Capitol and continued through his inaugural address. Nonetheless, Harrison delivered the longest inaugural address on record 8,441 words. A month later, he passed away after catching a cold that developed into pneumonia.
On March 4, 1909, a blizzard forced William Taft to hold his inauguration in the Senate chamber.
People gathered at the East Portico of the Capitol to witness inaugural oaths from Martin Van Buren's in 1837 to Jimmy Carter's in 1977. Benjamin Harrison explained the value of this public ceremony in his 1897 inaugural address:
"The oath taken in the presence of the people becomes a mutual covenant...My promise is spoken; yours unspoken, but not the less real and solemn...."
Would a private inaugural ceremony foster an equal commitment from "the people"? What effect does the media have on the solemnity of of the occasion?
In 1829, Andrew Jackson was the first president inaugurated outside the completed East Portico of the Capitol. The outdoor venue accommodated members of Congress as well as thousands of well-wishers.
Andrew Jackson's ceremony went smoothly but his post-inaugural celebration is legendary for the unruly mobs that swarmed the White House. According to a letter dated March 5, 1829, from James Hamilton to Martin Van Buren, this crowd "hailed the Chief with the most enthusiastic applause and greetings." Hamilton described the festivities, however, as "a regular Saturnalia. The Mob broke in, in thousands...in one uninterrupted stream of mud & filth."
Joseph Bishop's 1897 Century Magazine article "Inauguration Scenes and Incidents" provides another account of the proceedings:
As the waiters opened the doors to bring out the punch in the pails, the crowd rushed upon them, upsetting the pails, and breaking the glasses. Inside the house the crush was so great that distribution of refreshments was impossible, and tubs of orange punch were set out in the grounds to entice people from the rooms. Jackson himself was so pressed against the wall of the reception-room that he was in danger of injury, and was protected by a number of men linking arms and forming a barrier against the crowd.
Four years later, Jackson's second (and far more subdued) inaugural address was held in the Capitol's Hall of Representatives.
Ronald Reagan was the first president to take the inaugural oath on the west front of the Capitol. In his first inaugural address, he referred to the view from the podium as:
"...a magnificent vista, opening up on this city's special beauty and history. At the end of this open mall are those shrines to the giants on whose shoulders we stand."
A president commits to the upholding the Constitution and the people commit accepting the leadership of the new president. This "mutual covenant" provides a smooth transition from one chief executive to the next as Ronald Reagan describes in his 1981 inaugural address:
"[t]he orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution…. In the eyes of many in the world, this every-4-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle."
Not every transition has been as smooth as Reagan's. The inauguration of 1877 was boycotted!
The generally smooth transition from one president to the next is probably appreciated most when it doesn't exist. In 1877, Democrats boycotted Rutherford B. Hayes' inauguration to protest his controversial electoral victory. During his inaugural address, Hayes emphasized a non-partisan commitment to the nation and proclaimed, "He who serves his country best serves his party best." The new president hoped "that conflicting claims...must be amicably and peaceably adjusted, and that when adjusted the general acquiescence of the nation ought surely to follow."
While we may wonder what history will say about each election, the nation has experienced a peaceful change of leaders beginning with the inauguration of George Washington.