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About Inaugural Addresses

Kenneth Janda

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Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution provides for an executive power in the Office of President. The Constitution does not require a formal ceremony to inaugurate a president, but it does prescribe an oath that must be taken by the president-elect:

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 the President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

Before a crowd at Federal Hall in Philadelphia on April 30, 1789, George Washington became the first president to take this oath. Afterward, Washington delivered a short speech, establishing the precedent for inaugural addresses. Soon, presidential inaugurations became ceremonial events, and the speech delivered by the incoming president was studied as a guide to the next administration. [A few presidents gave no inaugural addresses; see below.]

The Constitution had originally specified March 4 as the date by which the president must be chosen, and that became the inauguration date. As more presidential electors were chosen by popular vote in the November election, the outgoing president became known as a "lame duck" in the four that months that separated the choice of a president from his inauguration. The Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution (adopted in 1933) provided that henceforth Congress would convene on January 3 and the presidential term would begin on January 20. On January 20, 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president nominated under the terms of the 20th Amendment.

According to Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Deeds Done in Words: Presidential Rhetoric and the Genres of Governance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), an Inaugural Address (pp. 14-15) seeks to

  • unify the audience by reconstituting its members as the people, who can witness and ratify the ceremony;
  • rehearse communal values drawn from the past;
  • set forth the political principles that will govern the new administration; and
  • demonstrate through enactment that the president appreciates the requirements and limitations of executive functions.

"Finally, each of these ends must be achieved through means appropriate to epideictic* address . . . "

*"A form of rhetoric that praises or blames on ceremonial occasions, invites the audience to evaluate the speaker's performance, recalls the part and speculates about the future while focusing on the present, employs a noble, dignified literary style, and amplifies or rehearses admitted facts." (p. 14)

Five presidents took office simply by taking the Constitutional oath, without an inauguration ceremony. The table below gives their names and the circumstances:

John Tyler-- Vice President John Tyler became President upon William Henry Harrison's death one month after his inauguration. U.S. Circuit Court Judge William Cranch administered the oath to Mr. Tyler at his residence in the Indian Queen Hotel on April 6, 1841.

Millard Fillmore-- Judge William Cranch administered the executive oath of office to Vice President Millard Fillmore on July 10, 1850 in the Hall of the House of Representatives. President Zachary Taylor had died the day before.

Andrew Johnson-- On April 15, 1865, after visiting the wounded and dying President Lincoln in a house across the street from Ford's Theatre, the Vice President returned to his rooms at Kirkwood House. A few hours later he received the Cabinet and Chief Justice Salmon Chase in his rooms to take the executive oath of office.

Chester A. Arthur-- On September 20, 1881, upon the death of President Garfield, Vice President Arthur received a group at his home in New York City to take the oath of office, administered by New York Supreme Court Judge John R. Brady. The next day he again took the oath of office, administered by Chief Justice Morrison Waite, in the Vice President's Office in the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Gerald R. Ford-- The Minority Leader of the House of Representatives became Vice President upon the resignation of Spiro Agnew, under the process of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. When President Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, Vice President Ford took the executive oath of office, administered by Chief Justice Warren Burger, in the East Room of the White House.

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