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Inauguration Day: A New Chapter in American History

Introduction

You may have seen pictures of a newly elected American President standing in front of a crowd, raising one hand as if taking a pledge. Their family might have been looking on proudly, with one of them perhaps holding a Bible, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court would be there, too. So what exactly is happening?

Background

These pictures depict Inauguration Day, when a new presidential term is commemorated and the President-elect is sworn into office. Inauguration Day is a longstanding tradition in American history, and it has become a hallmark of our democratic process.

Inauguration Day

The inauguration is a ceremony in which either a newly elected or returning President is sworn in for a new term in office. Inauguration Day takes place on January 20th every four years, following the November presidential elections. The President publicly takes the oath of office, and various celebratory events are held to mark the occasion. 

How It Works

Traditionally, the ceremony starts with the procession to the U.S. Capitol for the Inaugural Ceremonies. If the President-elect is entering office for the first time, they traditionally meet the outgoing President at the White House and travel to the swearing-in event together, escorted by members of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.

At the Capitol, an Inaugural platform is set up so that spectators may watch the swearing-in ceremony, the most important part of the day. The Vice President-elect takes the oath of office first, followed by the President-elect. Traditionally, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court administers the oath for the President-elect. For the VP, there is more flexibility in who administers the oath, and a variety of public officials have done so in the past. The vice presidential oath is specified by Congress and has been re-written multiple times; however, the presidential oath is written in the Constitution and has remained unchanged except for the traditional addition of the words “so help me God” at the end. After taking the oath of office, the President-elect officially becomes the President.

After the swearing-in ceremony, the President delivers the Inaugural Address. They typically describe their vision for the country and their goals for the future. This concludes the Inauguration Ceremony, and afterward, the honorary departure of the outgoing President occurs, if applicable. The President and Vice President then gather with members of Congress in the Capitol building for a signing ceremony to commemorate the first official actions of the new administration, usually nominations, executive orders, or other proclamations. The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies then hosts the Inaugural Luncheon. The day concludes with the President, Vice President, and their families standing at the front steps of the Capitol at the Presidential Reviewing Stand to watch the commencement of the Inaugural Parade, which starts with a procession of military regiments that are then followed by marching bands and other celebratory groups. The parade marches toward the White House, down Pennsylvania Avenue, ending Inauguration Day. 

The History

The process of inaugurating a President has roots both in the U.S. Constitution and in established tradition from the Founding Era. In Article II, the Constitution requires that all Presidents-elect take an oath (now referred to as the oath of office) before entering their term. For the first 150 years or so, Presidents were inaugurated in March following the election; however, the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution moved the start date for the new administration up to January 20th, where it remains today. After taking the first oath of office in 1789, George Washington delivered a speech in the Senate Chamber, starting the tradition of a newly sworn-in President giving what is now referred to as an inaugural address. 

So What?

Inauguration Day isn’t just a day of patriotic festivities. It also marks the peaceful transition of power, a crucial element of any functional democracy. A President either steps down for their successor or re-commits to the office for a second term, making Inauguration Day the commencement of a new and duly elected administration. The day’s festivities serve as an embodiment of the democratic norms that govern our presidential elections, reminding us through the oath of office that the leader of our nation has an obligation to the Constitution and, by extension, the people themselves.

Think Further

  1. Is it important that our democracy commemorate the beginning of a new presidential administration? Why or why not?
  2. Why might the Founding Fathers have considered the Oath of Office important enough to be part of the Constitution? 
  3. Why might the ceremonies take place at the Capitol? What is the significance of having the Chief Justice administer the Oath of Office? 

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Learn More

  1. “Inaugural Events.” Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, https://www.inaugural.senate.gov/inaugural-events/.
  2. The Avalon Project. “The Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents.” Yale Law School Lillian Goldman Law Library, https://avalon.law.yale.edu/subject_menus/inaug.asp. 
  3. “Inauguration Day in the United States.” timeanddate.com, https://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/us/inauguration-day.