There is no constitutional or legal requirement that the President shall take the oath of office in the presence of the people, but there is so manifest an appropriateness in the public induction to office of the chief executive officer of the nation that from the beginning of the Government the people, to whose service the official oath consecrates the officer, have been called to witness the solemn ceremonial. The oath taken in the presence of the people becomes a mutual covenant. The officer covenants to serve the whole body of the people by a faithful execution of the laws, so that they may be the unfailing defense and security of those who respect and observe them, and that neither wealth, station, nor the power of combinations shall be able to evade their just penalties or to wrest them from a beneficent public purpose to serve the ends of cruelty or selfishness.
My promise is spoken; yours unspoken, but not the less real and solemn. The people of every State have here their representatives. Surely I do not misinterpret the spirit of the occasion when I assume that the whole body of the people covenant with me and with each other to-day to support and defend the Constitution and the Union of the States, to yield willing obedience to all the laws and each to every other citizen his equal civil and political rights. Entering thus solemnly into covenant with each other, we may reverently invoke and confidently expect the favor and help of Almighty God--that He will give to me wisdom, strength, and fidelity, and to our people a spirit of fraternity and a love of righteousness and peace."(1)
These were the opening lines of Benjamin Harrison's inaugural address. Harrison was the twenty-third president of America and was sworn in on 4 March 1889. As he mentioned at the beginning of his address, there are no requirements for a president to be sworn-in in public. Yet the majority of presidents have been. The exceptions being vice-presidents who succeeded to the office in the absence or death of a president, such as Gerald R. Ford, Chester A. Arthur, and Andrew Johnson. Now some presidents who are sworn in publicly have taken the oath before they arrive for the ceremony. This is the case when January 20 is a Sunday. In that case the president takes the oath in private on the 20th and then publicly on Monday the 21st. The White House Historical Association tells of two other times when the swearing in was not held outdoors in-front of the public.
"William Howard Taft was sworn in on March 4, 1909, in the Senate Chamber because of bad weather and the advanced age of Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller. On January 20, 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt overrode congressional protests and held his fourth inauguration at the White House; because of the war he felt an elaborate celebration was not called for, although some suggest that he was feuding with congressional leaders."(2)
Now some of you may be wondering why there are two different dates for the inauguration ceremonies mentioned in the quote above. The date change came in part with the 20th amendment to the U. S. Constitution.
"Since the First Federal Congress (1789–1791), the official start date of the new Congress was March 4, a tradition dating back to the Articles of Confederation. The late winter date accommodated 18th and 19th-century Members who relied on primitive means of transportation to reach the capital city. Often, the House did not actually convene for business until much later in the fall. Reformers eventually sought an amendment to push back the start date to early January in order to shorten the “lame duck” session in election years (November to the following March). In 1923, Senator George Norris of Nebraska authored the initial resolution that provided the basis for the 20th Amendment. Nearly a decade later, Congress approved the amendment and the states swiftly ratified it."(3)
Thankfully, they decided to cut the "lame duck" time! With President (Elect) Joseph R. Biden's inauguration tomorrow, he will be the 15th president to be sworn in on January 20 following the date change during FDR's first administration. Though one thing you may not know as you watch the inauguration unfolding (likely) on the west side of the capital, facing the Washington Monument, is that it was not always held on that side. The change occurred when the planners of President Ronald Reagan's inauguration decided that it would be better for television as well as feeling more "presidential".
I hope that this post has given you a bit of insight into the traditions and history of the presidential inauguration. I want to end this week with the words that one of my favorite presidents, Abraham Lincoln, ended his first inaugural address with:
"In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to "preserve, protect, and defend it."
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." (4)
History Channel - "Photos: Presidential Inaugurations Through History"
Library of Congress Blog - "Presidential Inaugurations Outside of Washington, D.C. – Law and Tradition" and "Today In History - January 20"
National Constitutional Center - "How the 20th Amendment made lame-duck sessions less lame"