In April 1789,George Washington took the oath of office in New York City. Later he said of this new presidential role, "I walk on untrodden ground." Constitutional guidelines for inaugurations are sparse, offering only the date and the words of the oath. All else is driven by tradition. After the oath is administered the president gives an address, usually one stressing national unity. Inaugural events have become more elaborate over the years, including parades, which have evolved into spectacular entertainments. Selection of parade participants is a traditional way for a president to make a statement about his beliefs, as Abraham Lincoln did in 1865 by inviting African-Americans to march for the first time. Since the time James and Dolley Madison started the traditions of a White House reception and inaugural ball, such activities have been broadened to include a cross section of the American population. Receptions, balls, and other public events reflect the president’s need to include many diverse groups in the transition of power, even, at times, officially sanctioned protesters. More than a celebration of one person’s rise to power, modern inaugurations validate the republic’s democratic processes.
Credits: Text by Rachel Yarnell Thompson. The primary resource is a research document created by Shelly McKenzie for the National Park Service, July 1999. McKenzie’s work was supported by the White House Historical Association.
The White House Historical Association | Exhibits