History Lesson: 57th Presidential Inauguration

Washington Delivering his inaugural address April 1789, in the old city hall, New-York: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Heading to Washington, D.C. and braving the crowds on the Mall for the presidential inauguration on January 21st? Docent Jackie Burns give us a little context about how this once private ceremony became such a large public affair on the nation’s own front yard.

When Barack Obama took the oath of office during the 56th Inaugural Ceremony, the National Mall had never seen a larger gathering. The 2009 Inauguration was the largest event to transpire in the history of Washington, D.C., the crowd estimated at 1.8 million. People from all over the world came to participate and bear witness to the peaceful transfer of power that has marked the United States since the country’s formation. Yet while the National Mall may seem like the natural choice for the Inauguration, it has not always been the backdrop for this quadrennial ceremony.

The first three inaugurations, for George Washington and John Adams, were held in New York (1789) and then in Philadelphia (1793 and 1797). It wasn’t until March 4, 1801, in the fledgling capital city, that Thomas Jefferson walked to the U.S. Capitol and was inaugurated as the third president of the United States. The ceremony took place inside the Senate Chamber, now the Old Supreme Court Chamber; an outdoor ceremony did not occur until James Monroe’s Inauguration in 1817.

With no prescribed location for the ceremony, the Inauguration has been held in various venues: the Old House Chamber, the East Portico of the Capitol, in front of the original Senate wing of the Capitol, the current Senate Chamber, and even the White House.

Capitol Building, Washington, D.C.

Then on January 20, 1981, Ronald W. Reagan was sworn in as the 40th President of the United States, on the West Front, or the Mall side, of the Capitol. With 1985 as the exception (temperatures hovering around 7 degrees forced the event into the Capitol Rotunda) every Inauguration since 1981 has taken place on the West Front. In his 1981 Inaugural Address, Reagan marked the historic choice of a West Front ceremony:

“Standing here, one faces a magnificent vista, opening up on this city’s special beauty and history. At the end of this open mall are those shrines to the giants on whose shoulders we stand. Directly in front of me, the monument to a monumental man, George Washington, father of our country. A man of humility who came to greatness reluctantly. He led America out of revolutionary victory into infant nationhood. Off to one side, the stately memorial to Thomas Jefferson. The Declaration of Independence flames with his eloquence. And then, beyond the Reflecting Pool, the dignified columns of the Lincoln Memorial. Whoever would understand in his heart the meaning of America will find it in the life of Abraham Lincoln.”

Reagan saw the benefit, as well as symbolism, that a West Front Inauguration provided. Could there be a more perfect civic stage in Washington than America’s front yard, open to all and replete with the well known edifices of the republic?

On Monday, January 21, 2013, the 57th Inauguration will begin with a parade from the White House to the Capitol. President Obama will stand on the specially crafted inaugural platform and take the oath of office, culminating with an address to the nation. The theme of this year’s Inauguration is “Faith in America’s Future.”

If you are planning on attending the Inauguration, you can view maps and schedules at the website of the 2013 Presidential Inauguration Committee. For those who want to learn more about the history of Inaugural Ceremonies, the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies has put together a wonderful site with an historical essay and facts about the event.