The Inauguration of the President of the United States has become quite a spectacle, especially since the advent of radio and television. The 1925 inauguration of President Calvin Coolidge was the first to be broadcast over radio. Subsequently, 24 years later the first of these ceremonies aired on television, with the inauguration of Harry Truman for his first elected term as Commander-in-Chief. Radio and television revolutionized all aspects of life, but had a ground-breaking effect on the political realm. For the first time in history, politicians could reach nearly all of their constituents in record time, while also preserving the candid nature unique to an in-person speech. In the same stroke, citizens gained unprecedented access to their elected officials. This drastic environmental change has spearheaded the transformation from a relatively simple process, to one of great extravagance.
True to his timeless preference of simplicity, only rivaled by Coolidge in the 20s, George Washington’s first inauguration set the mark for all future inaugurations. He stood on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City, and addressed a crowd of anxious supporters. After concluding his remarks, he and the rest of the newly elected officials departed for church service at nearby St. Paul’s Chapel. Washington continued this trend of simplicity, not only during his next inauguration, but for the rest of his life.
Four years later, he addressed the American People once again. Given in 1793, our first President’s second inaugural address extended to only 135 words. Thematically, the speech focused sharply and succinctly on being held accountable. Should Washington not uphold the oath of office, he urged those in attendance to subject the President to their “upbraidings.” Wary of the temptations elicited by power, Washington remained a staunch advocate for federalism and the deferral of executive clout.
In stark contrast to the plainness of Washington, the 1841 inauguration of William Henry Harrison on the steps of the Capitol, read a lengthy 8,445 words. Unfortunately for Harrison, his zealous nature cost him his life. Harrison read the entire speech, in just a mere suit, during a raging snowstorm. The ninth President died a month later from pneumonia contracted during his inaugural speech. Harrison’s blunder quite possibly remains one of the strangest stories linked to the Oval Office.
Equally as outlandish, the populist Andrew Jackson’s 1829 inaugural, saw 20,000-plus commoners stampede the White House in hopes of catching a glimpse of Old Hickory. While stories of “drunken brawls” have been debunked as myth, the White House was damaged profusely. The open house tradition continued until 1885 when Grover Cleveland decided instead, to host a parade. Nevertheless, no inauguration has ever come close to the 1829 madness.
In the modern Presidential era, Presidents elect have chosen to take advantage of the newfound communicatory developments by setting the stage for coming agendas. Ronald Reagan, in 1981, addressed head-on the shortcomings of a tax and regulatory system that sought to centralize more power and income to the federal government.
“We suffer from the longest and one of the worst sustained inflations in our national history. It distorts our economic decisions, penalizes thrift, and crushes the struggling young and the fixed-income elderly alike. It threatens to shatter the lives of millions of our people.”
Reagan’s address set the tone for his widely successful approach to tax and regulatory reform, generally known as “Reaganomics.”
On quite the opposite of the ideological spectrum, and a half-century earlier, Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the Depression-stricken citizenry with the monumental words “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” He then went on to chastise the capitalist characteristics of the economy and attributed the Great Depression to their supposed failings. Keeping true to his inaugural, FDR went on to expand the regulatory state at a rate never before seen, and thus prolonging by a decade the worst economic period in our nation’s history. Roosevelt’s only life-vest was thrown to him in the shape of the Second World War. Nonetheless, FDR still has his unwavering worshippers that carry on his New Deal legacy and that of his inaugural.
Heading into the inauguration of our newly elected President, expect a grandiose ceremony, like the many before him. For many, the attendance of celebrities (or lack thereof), aura surrounding the ritual, and showmanship likely to appear will turn heads. However, pay close attention to the content of soon-to-be President Trump’s words, for they will serve as a policy roadmap. But most importantly, remember Washington’s second inaugural address. The reason for the occasion is the Oath of Office, not the celebrity surrounding it. Come Friday, the peaceful transition of power will be complete, but what must be upheld is the adherence to that sacred oath.
“I do solemnly swear 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.”
It is the President’s responsibility to obey the oath, and ours to subject him to our “upbraidings,” should he fail.
Follow this author on Twitter: @bradjCincy