Ted Widmer: What all fifty-four inaugural addresses, taken as one long book, tell us about American history

Roundup: Talking About History

[Ted Widmer directs the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. He is a contributing editor of the THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR.]

By tradition, January 20 is the feast day of Saint Fabian, a third-century pope who was appointed in a most unusual way. Before 236, he was a simple layperson, leading an utterly obscure life, even by third-century standards. That year, Fabian came to Rome and found himself unexpectedly in the middle of a crowd choosing the successor to Pope Anteros, recently deceased. At a dramatic point in the proceedings, according to the chronicler Eusebius, a dove flew down from the ceiling and landed on Fabian’s head, in “clear imitation of the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove upon the Savior.” The rest of the story can be divined without too much difficulty: within moments, Fabian found himself nominated, elected, and handed the keys to the papacy. Surprisingly, he made quite a good pope.

Was the same invisible hand guiding Congress when in 1933 it switched the date of the presidential inauguration to Saint Fabian’s Day? It makes a certain cosmic sense, though one could argue that it made just as much sense to stick with the date on which our presidents were previously inaugurated—March 4. Not only was it enshrined in the Constitution (there are only twenty-five amendments to the Constitution, and two of them, the twelfth and twentieth, treat the date of the inaugural); it was also, by a stroke of founding genius, the perfect date for a rousing speech about the future (march forth!). But since 1937, when the new plan went into effect, we have been held to a tighter schedule, with the result that our quadrennial calendar begins in the short days of late January—hardly the best time to sing a song of renewal.

That does not appear to have dimmed our interest in the ceremony, however. Inaugurals happen rarely enough to be genuinely arresting spectacles. Once every four years, between the Olympics and the World Cup, we embrace the rituals that launch a new presidentiad—Whitman’s word. The parades, the seating charts, the jets streaking overhead, the swearing-in ceremony—and then, of course, the inaugural address, when the most powerful man in the world elucidates his vision for the next four years of history. What’s not to love?

II. Exposition

But it’s an odd moment, really. Very few states, with the possible exception of the Vatican, place such a high premium on the rituals attending the transfer of power. These elaborate ceremonies tease out a tension that is as present in the twenty-first century as it was in the eighteenth, when the United States was still an iffy proposition. Simply put, it is difficult to conduct a democracy without resorting to monarchical role models. The inauguration is of course a coronation, drawing heavily on medieval antecedents. There are traveling delegations from across the realm, elaborate hierarchies and protocols, balls, minstrels, horses, equerries—a veritable Renaissance Faire!

Yet it cannot be a coronation, so it is different. The new leader wears no crown (hats have been optional since 1960, when John F. Kennedy held a silk top hat but did not wear it). His tenure begins not with a religious ceremony symbolizing the church’s approval, but with the swearing of a legal oath, thirty-five words written very specifically into the Constitution—along with the four words ad-libbed by George Washington in 1789, “so help me God.” The ceremony that “makes a president” lasts only about six minutes, as the journalist Richard Harding Davis noted in 1897, while “six hours are required to fasten the crown upon the Czar of Russia and to place the sceptre in his hand.”...

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