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Traditions behind the presidential inauguration

President Obama Swearing In
Official White House photo of Sunday's private swearing in

The presidential inauguration is a day-long event comprising many smaller ceremonies and traditions, each steeped in the history of the 56 inauguration days that have preceded the one approaching on Jan. 21. Most people are familiar with events such as the procession to the capitol, the swearing-in ceremony, and the inaugural address, but these are just a few of the staples of a day packed to the limit with pomp and circumstance. Dr. Douglas Young, professor of political science and history, talks about some of the lesser-known traditions and the history behind this important day.

Dr. Douglas Young
Dr. Douglas Young


What are a few of the more obscure events/traditions of the presidential inauguration?

One Inauguration Day ritual dating back to 1837 is for the outgoing president and incoming president-elect to ride together to the Capitol for the new president to take the oath of office. This can be a tense ride if the two presidents are of different parties, especially if the president-elect just defeated the soon-to-be former president’s bid for re-election. For example, on March 4, 1933, outgoing Republican President Herbert Hoover and incoming Democratic President-elect Franklin Roosevelt are reported to have sat in the car next to each other in silence. That would be the last day they would ever meet.

Also, since Franklin Roosevelt’s first inauguration in 1933, on the morning of the ceremony, the president-elect has worshipped at a local church of his choice.

What role does the inaugural address play in a day filled with traditions?

While there are many traditions that the incoming president will follow, each new leader knows this may well be the most important, memorable speech of his life. The incoming president carefully writes and/or edits the address to try to strike the precise tone desired for his presidency, to define the incoming administration's policy priorities in his own terms, and to establish a personal rapport with the citizenry. Even the Bible the president-elect selects to use for the oath of office can symbolize who he wants to be identified with, based on which earlier president or leader may have used that Bible.

What are some of the most memorable inauguration days, and why?

Among the most memorable presidential inaugurations, 68-year-old President William Henry Harrison sought to prove in 1841 he was neither too old nor unlearned for the job. He not only gave our nation's longest inaugural address at two hours, but he did so outdoors in freezing rain, sans coat and hat, which gave him pneumonia and killed him in a month.

In 1865, as the Union Army was near final victory in the War Between the States, President Abraham Lincoln used his second inaugural address to rhetorically reach out to all Americans by proclaiming the words since chiseled on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial: "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."

Then in 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt sought to rekindle confidence in the American Dream in the face of the Great Depression by asserting that "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

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