Saturday, January 21, 2017

A Look Back at the Inauguration(s)

I spent the day yesterday glued to the screen. I watched coverage of the inauguration from the arrival of dignitaries to the first dance at one of the inaugural balls. Probably much to the chagrin of my wife and children, my laptop was talking all day. Regardless of your views on the new president, or any president for that matter, observing the pageantry and pomp around the transfer of power is something to behold.

By no means is this an endorsement of the Trump presidency, and it is likewise not a condemnation of it, either. In fact, that is not even the subject of this article. I am specifically talking about the process of the inauguration itself.

People who have power do not like to readily just give it up. As a cornerstone of our democracy, every four years, we the people have an opportunity to choose who our leader will be. The former leader voluntarily steps aside and allows the new leader to take the reigns. There is no coup. There are no missile batteries, no tanks, no heads on pikes as part of this change. It is peaceful.

Yesterday was the 58th U.S. Presidential Inauguration. The first took place on April 30, 1789, on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City. In the first inaugural speech, President George Washington stated,

“Having thus imparted to you my sentiments as they have been awakened by the occasion which brings us together, I shall take my present leave; but not without resorting once more to the benign Parent of the Human Race in humble supplication that, since He has been pleased to favor the American people with opportunities for deliberating in perfect tranquillity, and dispositions for deciding with unparalleled unanimity on a form of government for the security of their union and the advancement of their happiness, so His divine blessing may be equally conspicuous in the enlarged views, the temperate consultations, and the wise measures on which the success of this Government must depend.”

Washington’s second inauguration took place in Philadelphia, in the Senate Chambers of Congress Hall. It also set the date of March 4th for the day of inauguration. John Adams had his take place also in Philadelphia, but in the House Chambers of Congress Hall. Thomas Jefferson was the first President to have his inauguration take place in the new capital, Washington, DC, on the Senate floor of the Capitol. In part, he said:

“During the contest of opinion through which we have passed the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think; but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good. All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.”

James Monroe was the first to hold his inauguration outdoors, in 1817. James Polk’s inauguration in 1845 was the first to be reported by telegraph, and the first to be illustrated in a newspaper. James Buchanan, in 1857, was the first to be photographed during the swearing-in ceremony, while William McKinley’s event was the first inauguration to be filmed with a motion picture camera.

Other firsts include Warren G. Harding being the first President to arrive by automobile while Calvin Coolidge had two firsts. The first was that it was the first to be broadcast nationally on the radio, and the second was his was the first oath of office administered by a former President. William Howard Taft, after leaving the White House, became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In such capacity, he administered the oath of office for both Coolidge and Herbert Hoover.

The passage of the Twentieth Amendment, adopted in January, 1933, moved the date of inauguration from its traditional March 4th date to its current date of January 20th. As a result. Franklin Roosevelt’s second inauguration was held on January 20, 1937, six weeks sooner than it would have occurred under the old law.

Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, held the first inauguration to be televised live across the country in 1949. John Kennedy one-upped him in 1961 with the first color television broadcast of the ceremony. Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s vice president, was administered the oath of office on an airplane, and by a woman. Both are the only times that has happened.

Once the transition of the capital to Washington was complete, only four Presidents have been sworn in outside that city. The first was in 1881, when Chester Arthur was given the oath of office after the death of James Garfield. The ceremony took place at Arthur’s home on Lexington Avenue in New York City.

Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in at the Ainsley Wilcox mansion on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo after the death of William McKinley, who had been shot at the Pan American Exposition in 1901. Calvin Coolidge was sworn in at his family homestead in Plymouth Notch, Vermont after the death of Warren G. Harding. The last was the aforesaid Lyndon Johnson at Love Field in Dallas in 1963.

Ironically, William Henry Harrison had the longest inaugural speech of any President, but had the shortest time in office. He served only 31 days, catching a cold nearly three weeks after his ceremony, and being unable to recover, he perished from the malady. He did, however, have this to say in his speech:

“It should be our constant and earnest endeavor mutually to cultivate a spirit of concord and harmony among the various parts of our Confederacy. Experience has abundantly taught us that the agitation by citizens of one part of the Union of a subject not confided to the General Government, but exclusively under the guardianship of the local authorities, is productive of no other consequences than bitterness, alienation, discord, and injury to the very cause which is intended to be advanced. Of all the great interests which appertain to our country, that of union—cordial, confiding, fraternal union—is by far the most important, since it is the only true and sure guaranty of all others.”

In researching for this article, I have read the inaugural addresses of all the Presidents. That’s 52 speeches, most of which have been written with an archaic form of literature and cadence. Luckily, I’m a little bit used to that. Unsurprisingly, most of them touch on exactly the same subjects in almost exactly the same way, regardless of party. They all spoke about the greatness of our country and the unlimited future we have.

In watching yesterday’s ceremonies, I felt that pull of history. We’ve been having a peaceful transition of power since 1789. While we are not the only country to do so, I don’t live in those other countries. I live here. This is my country. It means something special to me. All the nuance that you saw yesterday is steeped in 228 years of history. Each predecessor built us to this moment. And the great thing? We get to do this all again in four years.

We can agree or disagree with the results of elections. And in the end, we can make our choices as to who we think would be the best leader of the country. Sometimes, our candidate doesn’t make it. Sometimes, they do. As long as we keep exercising our rights to visit the voting booths, we will continue to make these transfers peaceful. Once we start throwing rocks or setting fires, we lose a piece of what makes this country great. Peaceful protests are encouraged. That dialogue is part of the process. Rioting has no place.

I felt pride in the fact that despite drastic differences in opinion over the new President, we were still able to fulfill this most earnest wish of our Founding Fathers -- that we would find the humility to give up the highest power in the land, bequeathed by the people, and pass it on to the next leader. I leave you with this quote by President Barack Obama from his first inauguration:

“In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling-for-less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted — for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.”

Craig Bacon loves history, especially the pageantry and elegance of ceremony. He hopes you will engage in debate. However, he will not abide by vulgarity and name-calling.