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How inaugural traditions have grown and changed over the years

Posted at 1:54 PM, Jan 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-18 16:54:37-05

WASHINGTON — "It was April 30, 1798 at Federal Hall in New York City when George Washington took the oath of office to become the nation’s first president," said Joint Congressional Committee On Inaugural Ceremonies Chairman Roy Blunt.

We’ve come a long way since then. The 59th inauguration is right around the corner with the theme “Our Determined Democracy: Forging A More Perfect Union.”

"The inaugural events are not only a hallmark of American governance and democracy, but also it fulfills our constitutional duty," said Blunt.

Tensions may feel high with the recent riots at the capitol but political science professor Allen Bolar said these kinds of traditions keep us united.

"Though we may be of opposing parties, though we may be of opposing factions, ultimately we are united in supporting the new government, the new president and ultimately, our system itself, our institutions," said Bolar.

In the 20th Amendment, the constitution states that the presidential term “shall end at noon on the 20th day of January.”

Past presidents who are able to attend will be at the ceremony.

“The idea is, you want all of the American government, at least as much of it as you can get, along with past American governments or people who have been in the government to kind of, through presence, demonstrate a kind of unity," said Bolar.

While President Trump won’t be attending Joe Biden’s inauguration, Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen Pence, will be there.

“As we know, [tensions] are often very high and so having former presidents, you know, the Vice Pesident Mike Pence is going to be at the swearing in of President-Elect Joe Biden, that’s something you want because it shows that though Pence is on the losing side, he's kind of saying, ‘But I accept this and this is something that’s going to go forward,’” said Bolar.

The inaugural ceremonies have grown and changed over the years.

“Think about any tradition that happens, maybe a tradition in your family on Christmas or something like that," said Bolar. "Sometimes they just happen one year and everyone is like, 'That was kind of cool,' so it’s part of what makes that special.”

Bolar said Andrew Jackson’s inauguration in 1829 was a rowdy party with barrels of alcohol. While the event has mellowed down, there is still that sense of celebration.

“It’s a lot of hoopla, it’s a lot of events, but it’s really for a kind of patriotic thing that is part of the way we kind of maintain and strengthen our democracy," said Bolar.

The ceremony usually starts with a procession to the capitol. The president and president-elect travel there from the White House together. This year, there will be a shortened military escort.

The vice president and vice-president elect will follow, and then family members, cabinet members and JCCIC members.

The vice president-elect takes the Oath of Office first. Then the president-elect is sworn in and delivers an inaugural address.

There is an honorary departure for the outgoing president and First Lady, and then the newly sworn-in president enters the President’s Room inside the capitol with members of Congress. First official actions are taken, like signing nominations or executive orders.

That’s followed by an inaugural luncheon and finally the pass in review. The new president and vice president review military troops at the East front steps of the capitol before leading a procession down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.

“I would say it signifies a legacy of stability," said Bolar. "The United States is the oldest constitutional democracy [in] the world. It’s not religious, but there is something sort of sacred about certain American rituals.”

Inaugurations have taken place in times of both division and unity. Either way, Bolar said these inaugural ceremonies make up a historical and unifying tradition.

“There’s a certain feeling that certain things are special and I think this is one of those special traditions in the American democratic system," he said. "One of those things that binds us together."