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–by Don Kennon

Trying to avoid falling off the fiscal cliff is not the only thing going on at the Capitol these days. Since September, even before the results of the presidential election were known, the Capitol has been getting ready for the inaugural ceremonies on January 21, 2013. The lower terrace of the West Front has been closed and fenced off for construction of the inaugural stands. In anticipation of the inauguration, we’re presenting a series of posts on the history of Presidential Inaugurations, focusing on the Capitol connection. We’ll start with some general observations.

The West Front of the Capitol provided the dramatic platform for the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009. Architect of the Capitol photograph

The West Front of the Capitol provided the dramatic platform for the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009. (Architect of the Capitol photograph)

First, Presidential Inaugurations are the most significant public rituals of American representative government. Unlike the coronation of a monarch or any ritual associated with the rise to power of a dictator or autocrat, the inauguration of the American President is a cyclical, regularly scheduled event held every four years. The regularity of Presidential Inaugurations lends a sense of reassuring stability, continuity, and permanence to a political system that permits turnover in officeholders and change in policy agendas. Moreover, it is a peaceful change in government, unlike the turmoil and violence that so often has accompanied a change in head of state elsewhere.

Second, why is the Chief Executive’s oath of office customarily administered at the Capitol, the seat of the legislative branch of government? In part, it’s a reflection of how the President is elected. The Electoral College ballots are counted by Congress, which then certifies the election of the President and Vice President and notifies the winners. Moreover, the Capitol provides an appropriate political theater for the symbolism of the inaugural ritual. The oath is administered, normally when weather permits, outside, in the presence of the public—the electorate who chose the President. The President-elect and Vice-President-elect are surrounded by Members of Congress, past and present, Justices of the Supreme Court, members of the diplomatic corps, and other dignitaries as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court administers the oath of office. In this way, all three branches of the federal government and the public they serve are symbolically linked in this ritual of renewal and reaffirmation.

One final observation: Just as other ritual ceremonies are followed by feasts and celebrations, the remainder of Inauguration Day takes on the form of festival. The now sworn-in President joins Members of Congress for lunch in the Capitol before traveling back to the White House at the head of an increasingly elaborate parade. The day is then completed with festive Inaugural Balls at various locations around the city.

In the next post we’ll take a look at the first inauguration—George Washington’s in 1789 in New York City—which, although it did not take place at the current Capitol, did set several precedents still followed today.

For more information on Presidential Inaugurations:

Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, “Fifty-Seventh Presidential Inauguration, January 21, 2013”

Library of Congress, “’I Do Solemnly Swear . . .’: Presidential Inaugurations” 

Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States

Historical Inauguration Speeches (Videos)