"A New Birth of Freedom" was the theme for Barack Obama's inauguration today—a reference to one of Abraham Lincoln's most memorable lines from the Gettysburg Address. It was part of Obama's sustained effort to link himself with the memory of one of America's greatest leaders and to give Americans reassurance that today, as in Lincoln's time, the country would find its way through any crisis.
Obama, the first African-American president, has often emphasized his bonds with Lincoln, who waged war to preserve the Union and end slavery. Obama has pointed out that they both rose to prominence as politicians from Illinois and were considered unlikely successes early in their political careers. Obama even followed Lincoln's 1861 itinerary to Washington for his inauguration, making stops in Philadelphia, Wilmington, Del., and Baltimore. Obama was planning to be sworn in with the Bible that Lincoln used for his oath of office. Obama, the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, was raised amid the cultural diversity of Hawaii and Indonesia, and he went out of his way to involve many different kinds of people in his inauguration. Nearly every major segment of the population seemed represented in some way—whites and blacks, men and women, straights and gays, the old, the young, the middle-aged.
But a review of the history of presidential inaugurations shows that Obama's emphasis on populist sensibility could not match the inauguration of Andrew Jackson in 1829 in terms of sheer drama and cultural change. Jackson campaigned in 1828 on the theme that rich and powerful elites from the East were running the government for their own benefit, and it was time for Washington to promote and protect everyday people. He won 59.5 percent of the popular vote and swept into the White House on a tide of change.
On Inauguration Day, Jackson threw open the doors of the White House, and his supporters poured in, pushing and shouting as they celebrated their hero's victory. Many were rough men in muddy boots who climbed on chairs and wolfed down the food and drink, as did hundreds of farmers, laborers, ambassadors, members of Congress, and a number of children. "Several thousand dollars' worth of art glass and china were broken in the attempt to get at the refreshments; punch, lemonade, and other articles were carried out of the house in buckets and pails," wrote a shocked witness. "Women fainted; men were seen with bloody noses; and no police had been placed on duty."
Other inaugurations have been intentionally low key. When Franklin Roosevelt was sworn in for his fourth term in 1945, he was too exhausted and sick to do much celebrating after the struggles with the Depression and World War II. He died several weeks later. When Ronald Reagan was inaugurated for his second term in 1985, the weather was so bitterly cold that he canceled the inaugural parade in order to spare marchers and well-wishers frostbite—or worse.
William Henry Harrison, the ninth president, wasn't so lucky. On March 4, 1841, Harrison, 68, gave a 90-minute inaugural address in an ice storm, without a hat or overcoat. He caught a cold and died a month later of pneumonia.
George Washington set the pace with the first inauguration in 1789 in New York City, the nation's temporary capital. The oath of office he gave, as provided in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, was simple and brief, and remains the same today: "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." Washington added the phrase, "so help me God," and nearly every other president has done the same ever since. He followed his oath with an inaugural address, which most of his successors have also done.
Thomas Jefferson was the first president to be inaugurated in Washington, D.C., which became the capital in 1801. After his second inauguration, Jefferson rode on horseback from the Capitol to the president's house surrounded by mechanics from the Navy Yard—the forerunner of the inaugural parade.
Ronald Reagan moved the ceremony from the East Front of the Capitol to the West Front in 1981, seeking to symbolize his connection to the independent spirit of the West and California, where he had been governor. It opened up a magnificent vista that encompassed the Washington Mall, and every president since then has kept that venue.
Jimmy Carter was the first president to walk from the Capitol to the White House, in 1977. Reagan, who followed Carter in 1981, stayed in his limousine for the parade. But George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all emerged from their limousines to greet well-wishers and walk part of the route.
Over the years, only a few inaugural addresses have been truly memorable. In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt helped to reassure the country when he said, "This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive, and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." And he captured the national mood when he added: "This nation asks for action, and action now. Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously."
In 1961, John F. Kennedy had two lines that historians have widely praised. The first was his call to service: "Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country." And the other was overtly generational: "The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed and to which we are committed today at home and around the world."
Inauguration Day was originally March 4. But in 1933, it was moved forward to January 20, by constitutional amendment, to hasten the transition from one president to the next.
- Read more about Barack Obama's inauguration.