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On a beautiful sunny day in April 1789, George Washington laid his hand on the Bible and took the Oath of Office as the first President of the newly formed United States of America. Washington took the oath in the open overlooking a crowd in New York City. Upon completion, he spontaneously kissed the Bible and then delivered the nation’s inaugural address. With no guidelines having been prescribed in the Constitution for a presidential inauguration, many of Washington’s inaugural choices have served as precedents that continue to be followed by most of his successors.

Here’s a list of American Inauguration trivia. See if you can sort out the fact from the fiction.

The Oath of Office is administered by the Speaker of the House. Fiction The Oath of Office is  traditionally administered by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, though not required by the Constitution.

John Adams was the first President to be sworn in by the Chief Justice. Fact Because the Supreme Court had not yet been established, Robert R. Livingston, Chancellor of New York, administered the Oath of Office to George Washington.

Every President has given an Inaugural Address. Fiction Its  hard to imagine a politician NOT taking an opportunity to give a speech, but Presidents John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur, and Gerald Ford all assumed the presidency following his predecessor’s death or resignation and so decided that it would be inappropriate to give an inaugural address.

Newspaper covering FDR’s second inauguration, 1937.

The Inauguration has always been on January 20. Fiction Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president to be inaugurated on January 20. Prior to this, the Inauguration was held on March 4th to allow ample time to tally the popular vote, have the electoral college members send their votes to Washington, and for the new government to be formed under the president-elect. By 1933, modern forms of communication allowed for a more stream-lined transition of power. The Twentieth Amendment of the Constitution was ratified in 1933 and officially switched the date of the Inauguration to January 20th.

James Monroe was the first president to take the oath of office outdoors in Washington, D.C.  Fact After Washington swore his first oath of office before the city of New York from the balcony of Federal Hall in 1789, all subsequent inaugural oaths were sworn indoors until 1817. Washington swore his second oath of office in the Senate Chamber of Congress Hall in Philadelphia. John Adams swore the oath of office in the Hall of the House of Representatives in Philadelphia’s Federal Hall before a joint session of Congress. For both of his inaugurations Thomas Jefferson swore his oath in the new Senate Chamber of the partially built Capitol building in Washington, D.C. And James Madison was administered the oath of office in the Hall of the House of Representatives in the Capitol.

The oath is the only part of our elaborate inaugural ceremonies and celebrations that is required by the Constitution. Fact  Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution provides the brief, but imperative oath that every president beginning with George Washington has sworn to. The exact moment when a president-elect concludes the oath signals that he or she is now officially president and commander-in-chief.

Presidents must “swear” their loyalty to the Constitution. Fiction The Constitution does allow a president the choice of swearing or affirming the oath of office. Franklin Pierce is the only president to affirm his oath. It is unclear exactly why Pierce chose to affirm the oath. Some historians note that Pierce’s religious beliefs may have have deemed swearing the oath unethical.

President Barack takes the oath of office for the second time, on January 21, 2009

Barack Obama took the Oath of Office four times. Fact President Obama is the only president to take the Oath of Office twice each time he was elected. In 2009 there was some concern the Oath wasn’t properly administered at the formal swearing-in, so he took it again the next day. In 2013 January 20 fell on a Sunday, so there was a small swearing-in ceremony on the 20th and then the public ceremony on the 21st.

 

Bonus Trivia

Though tradition plays a dominant role in presidential inaugural ceremonies, special circumstances and personal preferences sometimes compel changes.

  • The inauguration of Martin Van Buren in 1837 marked the first time both the incumbent and president-elect rode together to the Capitol for the inaugural ceremony.
  • In 1853 Franklin Pierce affirmed his oath, instead of swearing it. He also chose not to kiss the Bible, but to place his hand on it instead.
  • Because inauguration day was a Sunday in 1877, Rutherford Hayes was sworn in before the actual inauguration day, and for the first time, a president swore the oath privately in the White House on Saturday. He then swore the oath in public that Monday.
  • In 1917 Woodrow Wilson became the first president to swear the oath on a Sunday. He also was the first to swear the oath in the President’s Room at the Capitol in private.
  • In 1953 Dwight Eisenhower chose not to kiss the Bible, but to recite a personal prayer following the oath.
  • President Lyndon Johnson was the first to ask his wife to actively participate in the inaugural ceremony. In previous years, the clerk of the Supreme Court would be asked to hold the Bible for the oath. However, Johnson asked his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, to hold the Bible. First Lady Johnson wrote about the experience, “I was touched that Lyndon wanted me to hold the Bible for the swearing-in. We used the Bible Lyndon’s mother had given us . . . and I stood facing the throng between the Chief Justice and Lyndon while he took the oath.” A new tradition was born. Since Johnson’s inauguration in 1965, every subsequent first lady has held the Bible for her husband’s oath.
  • The shortest and longest inaugural addresses were given by George Washington and William Henry Harrison, respectively. Washington’s second inaugural address was only 135 words long. William Henry Harrison’s inaugural address was 8,445 words long.

Most inaugurations continue to be festive events celebrated by traditional ceremonies, parades, and balls, but it is the oath of office that reigns as the highlight. In his book, Democracy’s Big Day, historian Jim Bendat writes, “Our Inauguration Day is one that demonstrates the continuity of our country and the renewal of the democratic process, as well as the healing that is sometimes needed after an election battle.”

Never has this been needed more in our country than today.

How about you? Will you be watching the festivities?