On the Path to Presidency

Understanding Inauguration Day

Capitol building on Inauguration DayOn January 20th, 2017, the United States will hold the inauguration ceremony for the country’s 45th President. Covered by news outlets nationwide, millions of people watch the event every year from home; but what is it like to attend Inauguration Day? Where does the Inaugural Parade actually take place? Where is the best place to watch if you are among the one million people are expected to attend in 2017?  With the aid of Context docent Mary Jo Binker, who leads our insider’s politics Pennsylvania Avenue DC Walking Tour, we go behind the scenes, learn about the history of Inauguration Day and, for those who will attend, get some tips and tricks on navigating the day.

Many modern Americans are familiar with the inauguration taking place every January, however, that was not always the case. Before 1933, inauguration day was held every year on March 4, the date the Constitution first took effect in 1789. This was changed to January 20 (or 21st, if the 20th is a Sunday) after the ratification of the Twentieth Amendment.

Thus, at precisely 12:00pm on January 20th, the president-elect stands on the West Front of the Capitol Building, a tradition beginning with Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, because the vast expanse of the Mall allows for large crowds to watch. The president is sworn in by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court With a hand resting on a Bible, a choice made by each president; President Barack Obama swore his oath of office on the same Bible used by Abraham Lincoln in 1861, as well as a copy that belonged to Martin Luther King, Jr.

President Barack Obama on Inauguration Day

President Barack Obama giving his first inaugural address in 2009.

Following the swearing-in ceremony, the President and Vice President are honored at a luncheon hosted by Congress and then parade along Pennsylvania Avenue. This broad boulevard was first conceived in 1791 to connect the Congress House and the then-Presidential Palace. It became part of the National Park Services in 1965, and in 1990 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

At 1.5 miles long, the parade has been held to honor every inauguration since Thomas Jefferson in 1805. From the Capitol, the President and motorcade will pass by iconic sites that dot the avenue, like the National Gallery of Art, the National Archives, Freedom Plaza, Willard Hotel, US Department of the Treasury, before reaching the White House. (Note, we also run a National Gallery of Art Tour that is led by local art historians.)

If you plan to attend in 2017, keep the practical in mind: it can be very cold in January, so dress warmly. (The shortest serving president, William Henry Harrison, caught a cold because he refused to wear a jacket on Inauguration Day and died three months later.)  Because of road closures and crowds, driving will be nearly impossible, so plan to take public transportation wherever possible. Most importantly, Mary Jo advises to “decide ahead of time whether you want to see the inauguration or the inaugural parade; without tickets, it is difficult to see both. Whichever you choose, plan to arrive several hours before each event to get a good viewing spot.” If you’re keen on seeing the President up-close, the best spot would be on the parade route, starting at the National Archives.

Tickets to the platform for the swearing-in ceremony must be requested through your local congressperson’s office; these are free of charge and will be distributed either via lottery or waitlist, depending on the office. Non-ticketed viewing stations with large television screens will be set up on the National Mall, and it’s advisable to arrive here early in the day to get a good spot. Along the Inauguration Parade route, ticketed bleacher seating will be available for purchase from the Presidential Inaugural Committee ahead of time. Free and non-ticketed viewing areas will also be available on the route, but these fill up quickly after entrances open at 6:30am. Regardless of how you attend, be prepared to stand in line for security.

For more on Pennsylvania Avenue and an in-depth look at the buildings around it, join our “Gov Works” Pennsylvania Avenue Walking Tour.