A Brief History of Presidential Inaugurations

James Buchanan Inauguration 1857

By John Wood (From Library of Congress) via Wikimedia Commons


On Inauguration Day (January 20), we mark the beginning of a new term for the President of the United States. The president takes the oath of office, followed by speeches, parades, and celebrations. Though the celebrations can take many forms, only the oath-taking ceremony itself is mandated by the U.S. Constitution. Here is a bit more about this important day, and the role it’s played in our nation’s history.

A Brief History of Inauguration Day

The first ever presidential inauguration took place in February of 1789, when sixty-nine electors chose George Washington to be our first President. The Constitution took effect in March of that year, and Washington traveled across the Hudson on April 30 to attend the ceremony. The first inaugural ceremony was held on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street in New York. Afterward, the President read the first inaugural speech, after which there was a night-time celebration marked by fireworks.

That first inauguration began many of the inaugural traditions we still observe today, such as the Inaugural Address after taking the oath of office. The first President to take the oath in Washington D.C. was Thomas Jefferson, who began the tradition of the Inaugural Open House, in which the President greets and shakes hands with well-wishers after the ceremony.

Inauguration Day wasn’t always held in January. Prior to the Twentieth Amendment, Inauguration Day was held on March 4, the day the Constitution took effect in the United States in 1789. The Twentieth Amendment moved the beginning and ending of the terms of president in 1933. Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first President to be sworn in during the month of January.

Technology and Changing Times

Though we take it for granted today that a Presidential inauguration will be televised live (and streamed online, and Tweeted about, etc.), it was not always the case. Only the members of Congress heard that first address delivered by George Washington. News of the Presidential inauguration would not get into the newspapers until 1809, with the election of James Madison. Later, the news would travel by telegraph — in the case of James Polk’s inauguration, the news was delivered by Samuel Morse himself!

As technology advanced, so did the speed and detail of inaugural news. James Buchanan became the first president whose ceremony was immortalized in photographs, and William McKinley’s inauguration was captured by early movie cameras. When Calvin Coolidge took office, the nation tuned in to listen by radio, and Harry Truman’s swearing-in was broadcast by television for the first time in 1945. The first President to see his inaugural address hit the Internet: Bill Clinton in 1997.

A Proud Tradition

Some things, however, haven’t changed much with the times. The Presidential oath, outlined in Article II of the Constitution, has remained unchanged for over two hundred years, and has been spoken by every President since its inception:

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Inaugural speeches and celebrations may vary, but those words have been an unchanging tradition for centuries.

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