Presidential Inauguration: A Short History, Facts and Quotations

Page one of George Washington’s First Inaugural Address, April 30, 1789. (Courtesy of National Archives)

Page one of George Washington’s First Inaugural Address, April 30, 1789. (Courtesy of The National Archives)

Let’s start this Monday by first saying, happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. For many, that means a day off from work. Coincidentally, it is also the second Inauguration welcoming President Barack Obama back to his second term in office – a grand spectacle for those of us with a day off to watch. Expand your knowledge and have fun facts on hand to share at your 2013 inauguration party with a short history of a centuries-old American tradition. Please read on…

America’s first presidential inauguration was held in our nation’s first capital: New York City (DC was made our capital in 1800) on April 6th, 1789 welcoming our nation’s first president to office. The announcement sounded like this:

“Whereby it appears that George Washington, Esq. was unanimously elected President—and John Adams, Esq. was duly elected Vice President of the United States of America.”

Duties for the 1st President-elect were supposed to begin on March 4, 1789, but the weather had different plans. Harsh storms made travel to New York from DC (the location of Continental Congress) impossible. Congress made the trip nearly a month later on April 6th, and began to tally the votes. Washington wasn’t there during the counting and word didn’t travel fast during that time—he wouldn’t learn his fate for many days.

When he arrived to his inaugural ceremony on April 30th, celebratory cannon fire and church bells would ring across the city. By then, the name of the chief executive was selected: “President of the United States,” (John Adams wanted the official title to be “His Most Benign Highness,” but Congress ultimately overruled him.)

New York Chancellor Robert Livingston presided over the swearing in. Washington placed his right hand on a Bible, and repeated these words from our Constitution:

“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.” He added to it a statement that remains in all oaths to date, “So help me God.”

alt="Abraham Lincoln's Inauguration, Harper's Weekly, March 16, 1861."

Abraham Lincoln’s Inauguration, Harper’s Weekly, March 16, 1861.

Historic Events and Inaugural Traditions

The Address

· George Washington was the first to give an Inaugural Address – a speech written specifically for the occasion.

· Supreme Court Justices preside over inaugurations – a tradition that was set during Washington’s second oath.

· Thomas Jefferson was the first president to take the oath of office in Washington, D.C.

· William Henry Harrison gave the longest address to date, taking nearly two hours to deliver 8,445 words.

The Parade

· During his second inauguration, Thomas Jefferson rode on horseback from the Capitol in Washington, DC, to the President’s House (the name then used for The White House). This procession amid music and people celebrating began the tradition of the Inaugural Parade.

· Jefferson welcomed congratulatory wishes from members of the public at a Presidents Open House at the executive mansion. This tradition ended when the 7th President, Andrew Jackson, was mobbed during the spectacle.

· The first parade with floats came in 1841 for William Henry Harrison and were military themed – with thousands of militia members marching, including veterans who fought alongside Harrison during the War of 1812.

· Abraham Lincoln shook the hands of thousands in 1865 after his second Inauguration.

· First ladies were not visible during inauguration ceremonies until 1909 when May Taft, wife of the newly elected William H. Taft, became the “first” first lady to ride alongside the president during the Inaugural Parade. This is how the name for the First Lady was chosen.

The Ball

· James Madison, America’s fourth President, and his wife, Dolley Todd Payne Madison, were the guests of honor at the first official Inaugural Ball, held at Long’s Hotel in Washington, D.C. Guests paid four dollars to attend.

· During Woodrow Wilson’s Presidency, all Inaugural Balls were canceled to create a day of solemnity. Franklin D. Roosevelt brought back the tradition in 1933 – although a more subdued version to fit a war-time mindset.

President William Jefferson Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton Dancing at the Tennessee Inaugural Ball in Washington, DC. (Courtesy of US National Archives)

President William Jefferson Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton Dancing at the Tennessee Inaugural Ball in Washington, DC. (Courtesy of US National Archives)


· Only Congress heard President Washington’s first Inaugural Address at New York’s Federal Hall.

· James Madison’s swearing-in was published in the newspaper.

· James Polk’s oath was recorded by Samuel Morse, the inventor of the electric telegraph.

· James Buchanan’s Presidency would bring the first inaugural photographs.

· William McKinley’s Inauguration was the first caught on video camera.

· Calvin Coolidge was the first to take the oath of office on the radio.

· Harry Truman had the first televised swearing-in.

· President Bill Clinton’s second inauguration was the first to have an official web site and to be seen live on the web worldwide.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy gives his Inaugural Address in 1961

President John Fitzgerald Kennedy gives his inaugural address after taking the oath of office on Jan. 20, 1961. (Courtesy of The Library of Congress)

Famous Quotations from Inaugural Addresses

“Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.” – Thomas Jefferson, 1801

“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.” – Abraham Lincoln on second address during the Civil War

“This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.” – Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression

“…ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what, together, we can do for the freedom of man.”” – John F. Kennedy to inspired youth in 1961.

“My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.” – Gerald Ford, 1974, on succeeding the disgraced Richard Nixon

“In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” – Ronald Reagan, 1981

“There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” – President Bill Clinton after the end of the Cold War.

“So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” – George W Bush, 2005


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Categories: History + Legends, Local DC, People, Quotations, Stories

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