Inaugurations Used to Be Simpler AffairsRoundup: Talking About History
Preparations are nearly complete for President George Bush's second inauguration on January 20. Inauguration activities have grown considerably since the early days of the republic when a presidential inauguration consisted of a simple swearing-in ceremony.
Presidential inaugurations are mandated by the U.S. Constitution. It requires that the president repeat a 35-word oath in which the chief executive promises to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."
The president must take the oath of office by noon on January 20th. Prior to 1937, Inauguration Day was March 4.
The first presidential inauguration took place in 1789 when the nation's first chief executive, George Washington, took the oath of office in New York City.
President Washington initiated a number of inaugural traditions that include taking the oath of office while placing his hand on a Christian Bible.
Marvin Kranz is a historian at the Library of Congress.
"And George Washington set certain precedents. For example, he was about to be inaugurated and he said, 'My goodness, how do I take the oath of office?' And he said, 'Gee, I need a Bible.' And so they had to run out and see where they could find a Bible, which they found in the local Masonic lodge. And that Bible has been used by some other presidents since that time," says Mr. Kranz.
Traditionally, the oath of office is administered by the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Chief Justice William Rehnquist says he will carry out that duty this year despite his ongoing battle with thyroid cancer.
The inaugural ceremony will be held outside on the West front of the U.S. Capitol building before a large crowd. Ronald Reagan began that tradition in 1981. Prior to that, the inaugural ceremony was held on the East Front of the Capitol facing the Supreme Court.
Historian Marvin Kranz says inaugural traditions rarely change once they are established.
"It has been tradition for well over 100 years to hold it at the Capitol,” he notes. “The only exception was Franklin Roosevelt in 1945. He was kind of ill and they held it in the White House where he was sworn in."
After the oath-taking ceremony, the president delivers the inaugural address, which usually lasts 15 to 20 minutes.
The shortest inaugural address on record was that of George Washington at his second inaugural in 1793. It lasted about two minutes.
The longest address was given by William Henry Harrison in 1841. He spoke for nearly two hours.
Historian Marvin Kranz says Harrison's determination to finish his speech in bad weather proved to be his undoing.
"Of course, it was the longest address and the shortest presidency,” he points out. “He died a month later. He probably contracted a cold out there. He was a real 'he-man', he stood outside in a biting wind without an overcoat and delivered his inaugural address and a month later he was dead."...
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