By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
Soon we will have another quadrennial celebration of the changing hands of the highest office in the land. The inauguration is about hope. Yes, hope. Regardless of your political beliefs, we watch the events of a new presidency with hope of one kind or another. We hope the new person won’t make the mistakes of the old. We hope that our opinions will now be considered and valued. We hope this guy doesn’t screw up. We hope four years go by quickly and uneventfully. They’re all hope, some positive, some negative, but hope all the same.
This new beginning means that we all have a moment to take some time, look at our present situation as a country and decide if we are where we want to be and what we need to do to get wherever that is. This has been the burden of 43 men on 57 separate occasions. They all stood on a platform in Washington D.C., put their hand on a bible and swore to…wait, none of those things are right. True, this is the image we see when we imagine the inauguration in our mind, but none of those things are actually required for the inaugural process.
First of all, the inauguration does not have to be in Washington D.C. George Washington was had his first inaugural in New York and his Second in Philadelphia. Adams was also inaugurated in Philly. Two presidents have taken the oath of office in hotels due to the death of the prior president. Two took the oath in their private residences for the same reason. The most recent extraordinary inauguration was that of Lyndon Johnson in 1963 on Air Force One in Dallas.
The Swearing and the Bible are not dictated anywhere either and neither is the phrase, “So help me God”. Due to some religions prohibiting members from swearing to anything, the option to affirm the oath was built in to the ceremony. Two presidents are believed to have done so, Hoover and Pierce. We know that Pierce did for certain even though he was an Episcopalian and was not required to avoid swearing. Hoover was a Quaker and it was believed he had used affirm, but news real footage shows he said solemnly swear. The only other Quaker president was Richard Nixon, and he also chose to swear. Theodore Roosevelt did not swear on a bible, and John Quincy Adams and that rebel Franklin Pierce swore on books of law to signify they were swearing by the Constitution. Finally, George Washington ad libbed the line “so help me god” and most presidents have followed suit. It is the proscribed thing to complete an oath for federal judiciary members, but there is nothing in the presidential oath that requires it.
The Inauguration Address
The shortest inauguration address on record was Washington’s second address at one hundred and thirty-five words.
I am again called upon by the voice of my country to execute the functions of its Chief Magistrate. When the occasion proper for it shall arrive, I shall endeavor to express the high sense I entertain of this distinguished honor, and of the confidence which has been reposed in me by the people of united America.
Previous to the execution of any official act of the President the Constitution requires an oath of office. This oath I am now about to take, and in your presence: That if it shall be found during my administration of the Government I have in any instance violated willingly or knowingly the injunctions thereof, I may (besides incurring constitutional punishment) be subject to the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony.
Not exactly, “Here we go again” but short sweet and to the point. Washington’s brevity seems to be a skill many politicians these days lack. William Henry Harrison should have followed Washington’s lead. His inaugural address was the longest so far and went on for 8445 words. Many people believe this lengthy speech, combined with the cool temperatures and cold wind contributed to the cold, then pneumonia, then pleurisy and eventual death of President Harrison. He died one month later and though he had the longest address, he had the shortest presidency.
The Twentieth of January
Weather was the original reason why most of the early presidents were inaugurated in March. Obviously those brought up from vice president to take the place of a deceased commander in chief weren’t given the option, but Washington Himself was inaugurated in April. The Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution changed the date to the Twentieth of January. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was both the last to be inaugurated in March and the first to do so in January. Regardless of the change in date, the warmest and coldest inaugurations have occurred in the January era. President Reagan had the warmest inauguration in 1981 at 55° and the coldest, 7°, for his second in 1985
There have been a few issues with the oath over the years as well. Chief Justice Fuller accidentally replaced the word protect with maintain in regards to the constitution when administering the oath to Taft. Ironically, Taft did the same at Hoover’s inauguration when he, Taft, was chief justice. Chief Justice Stone replaced Harry Truman’s stand-alone middle initial with the name Shipp, one of Truman’s grandfathers’ last name, but Truman just rolled with it and said Harry S. Truman anyway. Finally Barak Obama waited for Justice Rogers to realize a gaff when he put faithfully in the wrong place when reciting the oath. Rogers moved the term but still had it wrong. Rogers and Obama completed the Oath properly in the Oval Office the next day.
All these little bits of trivia notwithstanding, we can observe this inauguration in which ever spirit we choose, be it happy, sad, skeptical or hopeful. However there will be people looking for mistakes or records, swearing or affirming and what the temperature was to add this fifty-eighth inaugural to the history books.