9 Things You Should Know About Inauguration Day

Today is Inauguration Day, a day of ceremonies to mark the peaceful transition of federal executive power within the United States government.

Here are nine facts should know about the most important date—after Election Day—on the American political calendar:

1. The 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution establishes the date of inauguration as noon on the 20th day of January. Congress approved the proposed amendment in March 1932 and three-fourths of the states ratified it by January 1933. Throughout its consideration by Congress and the states, it was known as “the lame-duck amendment” and became the quickest amendment ratified by the states in U.S. history.

2. Prior to the 20th Amendment, Inauguration Day was held on March 4. That was the original date (March 4, 1789) when the Confederation Congress, which operated under the Articles of Confederation, handed off power to the new constitutional government. When the new Constitution changed the opening day of Congress to the first Monday in December (Article I, Section 4), March 4 was chosen as the last day of the two-year legislative session. Because elections were held in November, this created an extended lame-duck session. 

3. The Constitution (Article II, Section 1, Clause 8) outlines the exact wording for the 35-word oath the president must take during the inauguration: 

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) 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.

Since the Constitution doesn’t specify the wording of the oath for the Vice President, who is also the president of the U.S. Senate, he or she takes the same oath as senators.

4. No one knows for sure who began the tradition of adding on the end of the oath, “So help me God.” (Some claim it was George Washington, though there is no compelling evidence to support that position.) Chester A. Arthur appears to have been the first to do it in 1881, followed by William Howard Taft in 1909, Warren G. Harding in 1921, and Calvin Coolidge upon Harding’s death in 1923. (Coolidge reportedly said, “I do,” in response to Chief Justice Taft’s prompt of “So help me God” in 1925, and Herbert Hoover also said, “I do,” but without the prompt in 1929.) All the presidents from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Trump have added the phrase.

5. The inaugural oath is a corporal oath, one in which the oath-taker is in physical contact with an object while taking the oath, similar to the oaths taken in the Old Testament (e.g., Gen. 24:2–9; 47:29). George Washington started the practice of swearing-in with the incoming president’s left hand on a Bible (which he borrowed from St. John’s Masonic Lodge). The Bible was “opened at random due to haste” to Genesis 49:13. Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump each swore the oath on two Bibles. Biden will be sworn in on a family Bible that is five inches thick, with a sturdy leather cover, and solid metal clasps holding it closed

6. Not every president followed Washington’s precedent of swearing on the Bible. Both John Quincy Adams and Franklin Pierce swore on a book of law. Theodore Roosevelt did not use a Bible because he was sworn in quickly after the assassination of William McKinley. Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in on a Catholic missal found on Air Force One even though he was a Protestant (a member of the “Christian Church,” also called the “Disciples of Christ”). 

7. Washington also started the tradition of kissing the Bible after the oath. Christians adopted that practice early in church history, and by the time of the late Middle Ages, the phrase “kiss the book” had already acquired the proverbial meaning of taking an oath on the Bible. Andrew Jackson was the second president to kiss the Bible at his inaugurations in 1829 and 1833. Abraham Lincoln also did so in 1861. After Lincoln, presidents maintained the custom until it was finally abandoned by Dwight Eisenhower at his first inaugural in 1953. Instead of the kiss, Eisenhower said a prayer.

8. Since 1937, every inauguration has included at least two prayers given by members of the clergy (Baptists have given a prayer 11 times; Catholics 13 times). Billy Graham said six prayers for three presidents (Nixon, George H. W. Bush, Clinton), while his son Franklin Graham has given prayers at the inaugurations of two presidents (George W. Bush and Trump). Trump had five prayers, given by Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, Samuel Rodriguez, Paula White, Rabbi Marvin Hier, Franklin Graham, and Bishop Wayne T. Jackson. Myrlie Evers-Williams was the first woman and non-clergy to deliver an inaugural prayer at Obama’s second inauguration.

9. Following the inaugural ceremony in the U.S. Capitol, the outgoing president and First Lady leave to begin their post-presidential lives. As the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies notes:

In the early 20th century, a new tradition evolved whereby the outgoing president quietly left the Capitol immediately following the inaugural ceremony. In 1909, after congratulating President Howard Taft, former President Theodore Roosevelt left the Capitol for Union Station, where he took a train to his home in New York. In 1921, an ailing President Wilson accompanied President-elect Harding to the Capitol, but was too ill to remain during the ceremony. Outgoing Presidents Coolidge and Hoover also left the Capitol for Union Station where they traveled home by train. Outgoing Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Johnson left the Capitol by Car. Johnson and his family drove to Andrews Air Force Base where they boarded Air Force One for the trip home to Texas.

In recent years, the newly installed President and Vice President have escorted their predecessors out of the Capitol after the swearing-in ceremony.  The members of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies gather on the stairs on the east front of the Capitol Building.  The new Vice President escorts the outgoing Vice President and his spouse out of the Capitol through a military cordon. Then, the new President escorts the outgoing President and his spouse through the military cordon.  Since Gerald Ford’s departure in 1977, the former President and First Lady have left the Capitol grounds by helicopter (weather permitting).

President Trump has said he will not attend the inauguration, joining three other presidents—John Adams in 1801, John Quincy Adams in 1829, and Andrew Johnson in 1869—who refused to attend their successors’ inaugurations.

9 Things You Should Know About Inauguration Day

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