Every four years since 1789 – excluding second terms – America has had a bloodless revolution, a transfer of power from one president to another. Some call our presidential inauguration democracy’s only ritual, helping to bandage divisive election wounds.
The founding fathers intended elected presidents to take office the same day the Constitution went into affect, March 4. In order to shorten the lame-duck tenancy of the outgoing president, the 20th Amendment (1933) changed Inauguration Day to Jan. 20.
The Constitution provides the oath: “I do solemnly swear 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.”
George Washington’s first inauguration was in New York City, America’s first capitol. While the permanent Capitol was being constructed along the Potomac, inaugurations for both Federalists, Washington (his second) and John Adams (1797), were in Philadelphia. Democratic Republican Thomas Jefferson (1801) was the first to be sworn in as president at the new Capitol in Washington D.C. Few inaugural addresses stand out. Abraham Lincoln’s second address (1865) is one of the best. Nearing the end of the Civil War, Lincoln closed his address, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
President-elect Barack Obama’s inaugural theme is “A New Birth of Freedom,” honoring the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. This particular phrase is from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, expressing his hope that sacrifices made on the battlefield will help preserve the nation.
Lincoln and Obama were both congressmen from Illinois, and both elected in precarious national times. Both Lincoln and Obama had or will have the tightest security. Lincoln’s first inauguration (1861) was surrounded by cavalrymen because of the secession crisis at the start of the Civil War – and because Washington, D.C. was in the middle of slave states like Maryland and Virginia. Obama’s inauguration will have tightened security because it will be the largest in history; as many as 3 million are predicted to attend.
“At a time when our country faces major challenges at home and abroad, it is appropriate to revisit the words of President Lincoln, who strived to bring the nation together by appealing to ‘the better angels of our nature’, ” said Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee, commenting on inaugural ceremonies.
We have a history of both lavish galas and solemn commemoration. Those steering the inaugural celebrations will hopefully remember that our nation is in two wars, has surging unemployment, and is in an economic recession. Martin Luther King Day will be celebrated Jan. 19 – the day before Obama’s inauguration. How fitting that another great man who helped open the door for Obama to become our next president will be so closely celebrated. Obama already has a date in 2010 to dedicate the future M.L.K. National Memorial, not far from the Jefferson Memorial.
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