The Presidential Inauguration: A Brief History

The U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., is being prepared on Jan. 19, 2017, for the 58th Presidential Inauguration. Photo by Alexandra Wimley/BU News Service

Charles Borsos
BU News Service

The peaceful transition of power from one administration to the next is the foundation of democratic systems like that of the government of the United States of America. The inauguration of each successive president is paramount to this process, but it is one of the least defined in the Constitution. 

The only real requirement is that the president read this simple 35-word oath: “ I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” 

The inauguration has had a varied history even in the oath itself.  In fact, for the first several administrations, before inaugurations were recorded verbatim, the administrator of the oath read the oath and the president only said, “I do.” And while most presidential oaths have been administered by Supreme Court Chief Justices, there is no guidance in the Constitution on who has to do this either.

Even swearing on the Bible is neither required nor universal. John Quincy Adams and Franklin Pierce both swore on books of law. Theodore Roosevelt didn’t swear on anything. Other presidents have sworn on two Bibles at the same time, including Barack Obama and Richard Nixon. Donald Trump plans on swearing on his own family Bible, as well as Abraham Lincoln’s Bible. Vice President-elect Mike Pence will be sworn in on Ronald Reagan’s Bible. 

Settling on the date, January 20th, was a relatively recent decision. George Washington was sworn in on April 30th in New York City. The date was written into law with the Twentieth Amendment in 1933, with Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the first president to be sworn in on January 20th.

One thing that has become more and more prevalent is the use of the inauguration as a venue to express protest. Richard Nixon’s inaugurations in 1969 and 1973 both drew considerable ire from the growing movement against the Vietnam War. 

Military engagements have been continued lightning rods for inaugural protests in the past, including the second inauguration of George W. Bush. His first election also drew a great number of picketers due to his losing the popular election to his opponent Al Gore. This was also the case this year;  Trump lost the popular vote by almost 3 million. 

This year, major protests include the Women’s March on Washington the day after the Presidential Inauguration, on January 21st. Disrupt J20 is a group whose group is to “delegitimize Trump and all he represents.”  The ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) Coalition will protest a president-elect it calls a “racist, sexist bigot.” At the same time, many will flock to the nation’s capital in support of Trump, including groups such as Bikers for Trump, which will hold the largest pro-Trump demonstration at the inauguration. 5,000 people are expected to attend. 


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