Behind the Buzz - The History of the Presidential Inauguration

The inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden will look a lot different in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic...

Behind the Buzz - The History of the Presidential Inauguration

Behind the Buzz - The History of the Presidential Inauguration

<strong>The inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden will look a lot different in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic</strong>...

Author: Edward "Teddy" Eynon|January 12, 2021

The inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden will look a lot different in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In line with precedent, President-elect Biden will still be sworn in on January 20, 2021, in Washington, D.C. on the West Front of the United States Capitol. However, much of the ceremony will be “virtual,” in-person attendance will be limited, and the celebrations that accompany the event will be muted.

Timing of Inauguration

The date and time of the Presidential transfer of power are established under the 20th Amendment, which states: “The terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January… and the terms of their successors shall then begin.”

Prior to the 20th Amendment, the new administration was not sworn into office until March 4. The extended timeframe between the election and inauguration was needed to count votes and for members of the incoming administration and Congressional delegation to settle their affairs and travel to Washington, D.C.

Oath of Office

Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution sets forth the oath the president takes before assuming the responsibilities of the country’s highest office. It states: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) 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.”

President George Washington placed his hand on a Bible when reciting the oath, and almost all subsequent presidents have continued the tradition. The presidential oath is typically administered by the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

By tradition, the outgoing President accompanies the President-elect to the Capitol for the swearing-in ceremony. However, President Donald Trump has stated that he does not plan to attend the event. It is unclear if Vice-President Mike Pence will serve in this role instead. According to historians, President Trump is the fourth president to refuse to attend his successor’s inauguration. He joins John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Johnson on that list. Not surprisingly, the boycotts followed bitter and contested elections, much like 2020.

Location of the Inauguration

The Constitution does not dictate where the swearing-in ceremony must be held or what form it takes. There have been 58 formal presidential inaugural ceremonies, occurring at more than 10 different locations. President George Washington was sworn into office in New York City, in 1789. In a short speech, he called upon “That Almighty Being who rules over the universe” to assist the American people in finding “liberties and happiness” under “a government instituted by themselves.” President Washington’s second inauguration took place in the Senate chamber of Congress Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on March 4, 1793.

President Thomas Jefferson was the first to take the oath of office in Washington, D.C., although the city was still under construction. President Jefferson walked from his boarding house to the Capitol Building, where Chief Justice John Marshall administered the oath of office. After a short inaugural address, he returned to the boarding house. President Andrew Jackson’s March 4, 1829 inauguration was the first held on the East Front of the Capitol. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan relocated his inauguration to the steps of the West Front of the Capitol, where it continues to be held today.

Several administrations have been forced to make location changes to the inaugural ceremony due to weather. President Jackson’s second inauguration was held inside the House Chamber because of his poor health and bad weather. A blizzard drove President William Howard Taft’s ceremony indoors to the Senate chamber. President Reagan’s second inauguration was also relocated to the Capitol Rotunda due to freezing cold temperatures.

Inaugural Address

The inaugural address is the incoming president’s opportunity to share his vision for the country. George Washington spoke only a few words after being sworn into office. In his address, Washington referenced his commitment to the public good and stated that he would decline to be paid a salary.

William Henry Harrison made history when speaking for nearly two hours. However, he died one month later from pneumonia. Other inaugural addresses were shorter and more memorable. In the midst of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt famously stated: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." In 1961, John F. Kennedy issued a challenge to the country “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." 

Inaugural Events

The first presidential inaugurations were fairly simple affairs. In 1805, Thomas Jefferson traveled on horseback from the Capitol to the White House, accompanied by navy yard mechanics and music performed by the Marine Band. The procession laid the groundwork for the first official parade, which was held when James Madison was inaugurated in 1809. James and Dolly Madison also made history by attending the first inaugural ball, with attendees paying four dollars to attend. Additional post-ceremony inaugural events include a congressional luncheon at the U.S. Capitol, as well as an interfaith prayer service. When Biden takes office, many of these inaugural events will be scaled back in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has happened before in response to a national crisis. Franklin D. Roosevelt's fourth inauguration, which took place in the midst of World War II, was simple and included little fanfare after the official swearing-in ceremony. President Richard Nixon’s second inauguration was also a somber affair due to the death of former President Lyndon Johnson just two days prior. On January 20, 2021, President Joe Biden’s inauguration, and the unique circumstances under which it will occur, will be added to the long history of presidential inaugurations.

If you have questions, please contact us

If you have any questions or if you would like to discuss the matter further, please contact me, Teddy Eynon, or the Scarinci Hollenbeck attorney with whom you work, at 201-896-4100.

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About Author Edward "Teddy" Eynon

Edward "Teddy" Eynon

Edward “Teddy” Eynon is Managing Partner of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Washington, D.C. office. Teddy regularly represents clients in numerous government-related matters, including public policy, energy and environment, budget, defense, healthcare, financial services, transportation & infrastructure, congressional investigations, and oversight issues.

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