An Oath Steeped in Tradition

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By Andrew Cain/Media General News Service
Published: January 18, 2009

Many familiar rites of a presidential inauguration come not from the U.S. Constitution but from the precedent set by the first president, George Washington.

Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution says nothing about the inaugural ceremony, other than specifying the oath of office:

“Before he enter on the execution of his office, he shall take the following oath or affirmation: ‘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.’ ”

In George Washington’s first inauguration on April 30, 1789, “we see the pattern that is set for all inaugurations ever since,” said Marvin Kranz, a historical specialist in the manuscript division at the Library of Congress.

Kranz narrated presentations on 12 of the inaugurations from Washington to Theodore Roosevelt as part of “I Do Solemnly Swear,” an online exhibit by the Library of Congress.

Kranz notes that Washington chose to take the oath with his hand on a Bible and set the precedent of delivering an inaugural address. Washington also added the phrase “so help me God” after taking the oath. The first inaugural ball commemorated Washington’s presidency.

Kranz notes that on March 4, 1801, the third president, Thomas Jefferson, set another precedent, using his inaugural address to ease the peaceful transfer of power between political parties.

Of the nation’s 43 presidents, two — Franklin Pierce and Herbert Hoover — chose to “solemnly affirm” rather than “solemnly swear” while taking the oath.

With the exception of inaugurations that followed presidents who died in office, all inaugurations between 1793 and 1933 were on March 4 except for four that occurred on March 5 because March 4 fell on a Sunday.

That changed with the 20th Amendment, ratified in 1933. Beginning with Franklin Roosevelt’s second inauguration in 1937, presidents have been inaugurated on Jan. 20, minimizing the “lame-duck” session of Congress.

Andrew Cain is politics editor for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

 

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