The Many Facets of Inauguration Day

As Inauguration Day approaches, prepare your learners by researching the protocol and festivities of inaugurations past.

By Linda Fitzsimmons Pierce

the White House

Inauguration Day marks one of those important days for the United States that lends itself beautifully to teaching our classes about respect, ceremony, and tradition. We are privileged to live in a nation where the "changing of the guard" or transfer of power is peaceful. Let's share the respect for, and history of, the inauguration of America's president. Get your learners involved right away in the process. Have a few students research this year's Inauguration Day, date, and location. (Note: This year's Inauguration Day falls on a Sunday. In the past, the oath of office has been administered on Sunday privately, but has been followed by the public administering of the oath and additional celebrations on Monday. When will these events take place in 2013?)


The Impact of the Inauguration Ceremony 

What is an inauguration and why do we need it? The answer is simple. It is a national holiday celebrating the beginning of a new presidential term. An inauguration can signal four more years of the same administration, or the dawn of a new one. Either way, the ceremony assures the American people that our democratic government and the principles supporting the US Constitution remain strong and intact. Although the ceremony itself continues to evolve, we still rely on the practiced tradition of a presidential inauguration.

Since George Washington was inaugurated, the center point of the ceremony has been the president taking of oath of office. Talk with your class about what the word oath means. Is it like a promise? What if someone breaks an oath? What might happen if a president breaks his oath of office? Have your class write an oath of office as a child, with respect to their parents. 

An Integral Facet of Each Inauguration - The Oath of Office

Discuss that the duty of the president, as stated in the oath of office is "to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America." This is a great segue into learning about the Constitution. Jump on this opportunity after the hoopla of the inauguration is over. Your pupils will be excited to know the basis of our government. This is especially true after they have completed the research project below. 

To impress upon your pupils the importance of our government system and peaceful transfer of power in the United States, have your class research in groups how elections are held in other countries and if there are inaugurations in other countries. Allow them time to share their findings.

After sharing their research, discuss the similarities and differences between other countries and ours with relation to their election and inauguration procedures. (That is, if they have them. If not, discuss how the lack of ceremony and oath of office reflect on the governmental systems of other countries.) The goal of this lesson is to inspire gratefulness for America's freedom and for its democracy

The History of Presidential Inaugurations 

  • George Washington: George Washington was well aware that each action he took as the nation's first president would determine how the nation and the presidential office would be perceived from that moment on. Washington was elected by a unanimous vote, and he was tremendously admired by citizens of the new republic. In 1879, he traveled from his farm in Virginia to the temporary capitol of the United States in New York. There, he took the oath of office as stated in Article II of the new Constitution. He delivered a ten-minute inaugural address, and proceeded to consult with members of his newly appointed cabinet about how the duties of the presidency should be carried out on a day-to-day basis.
  • Thomas Jefferson: Thomas Jefferson walked to his first inauguration. It was the first inauguration held in Washington. When it was over, he returned to his boardinghouse for dinner. 
  • Andrew Jackson: The election of Andrew Jackson was seen by many as a victory for the common citizen in much the same way as Jefferson brought an end to the Federalist aristocracy. He was the first president elected from a state that was not one of the original thirteen colonies. He represented the interests of the rural western frontier, rather than the industrial northeast. Although Jackson is said to have slipped quietly into the Capitol in February 1829, his inauguration seemed to predict the tone of his administration. The usually uninhabited town of Washington, DC, was packed with inaugural onlookers who saw Jackson as a savior. Cheering was heard when Jackson emerged on the steps of the Capitol to take the presidential oath, muffling the oath as well as the inaugural address. The throng crowded the new president as he made his way to the White House. Having opened the White House to the public, in keeping with a tradition started by Jefferson, Jackson was forced to escape a rowdy mob of well-wishers by climbing out the window.
  • Ronald Reagan: Ronald Reagan took the oath of office privately on the twentieth of January, holding the public ceremony the following day. Severe winter weather caused the ceremonies to be moved inside the Capitol Rotunda. 

Presidential inaugurations have been solemn ceremonies and uninhibited celebrations. They are carefully scripted and they are unpredictable. They reflect tradition and they reflect the moment. Help your students reflect on what the presidential inauguration has become and what it has been. Encourage them to meet a host of memorable historical figures and uncover a sense of America's past through archived materials.  

Inaugural Balls 

Inaugural balls offer a glimpse of the joy and relief at the end of campaigning, prior to the intense focus of running the country. Generally, the atmosphere is festive, and the first lady's gown is of national interest. Allow those students who are interested in fashion to research what first ladies have worn in the past. They can even create a PowerPoint presentation to share their findings and the different fashions throughout the years. This site from the Smithsonian could come in handy.

The first inaugural ball was held on on May 7, 1789, one week after the inauguration of George Washington in New York City. However, it was not until 1809, after the Washington, DC inauguration of James Madison that the tradition of the inaugural ball began. That night, First Lady Dolley Madison hosted the gala at Long's Hotel. Four hundred tickets sold for four dollars each. In 1833, two balls were staged for President Andrew Jackson, one at Carusi's Assembly Rooms and the other at Central Masonic Hall. William Henry Harrison attended all three of the 1841 inaugural balls held in his honor.

The inaugural ball quickly turned into an anticipated highlight of Washington society, and its location became a prime topic of discussion and angst. Organizers wanted a building that could accommodate large numbers of guests. A temporary wooden building was erected in the city's Judiciary Square in 1849 for one of Zachary Taylor's inaugural balls. By the time of James Buchanan's inauguration in 1857, the idea of multiple balls was abandoned for one grand ball that could accommodate thousands of guests. Again, a temporary ballroom was built in Judiciary Square for the occasion. Food purchased for Buchanan's ball included wine that cost about three thousand dollars, four hundred gallons of oysters, five hundred quarts of chicken salad, twelve hundred quarts of ice cream, sixty saddles of mutton, eight rounds of beef, and seventy-five hams.

In 1865, the ball following Lincoln's second inauguration took place in the model room of the Patent Office—the first time a government building was used for the celebration. The Grant's 1869 inaugural ball was held in the north wing of the Treasury Building. Apparently, there was not enough room there for dancing, and a snafu in the checkroom forced many guests to leave without their coats and hats. So for Grant's 1873 inauguration, a temporary building was again constructed in Judiciary Square. Grant's second ball proved to be a disaster. The weather that night was freezing cold, and the temporary structure had no heat or insulation. Guests danced in their overcoats and hats, the food was cold, they ran out of coffee and hot chocolate, and even the caged decorative canaries froze!

Thrift and Simplicity - Canceling the Inaugural Ball

Later, inaugural balls were held at the National Museum building (now the Smithsonian Arts and Industries building) and the Pension Building, which was the favorite venue from 1885 through 1909. In 1913, the city's inaugural organizers began planning the ball to celebrate Woodrow Wilson's inauguration, again to be held at the Pension Building. But, President-Elect Wilson thought otherwise. He felt the ball was too expensive and unnecessary for the solemn occasion of the inauguration, and asked the inaugural committee to cancel it. The city of Washington had not missed an inaugural ball since 1853, when a grieving President Franklin Pierce, mourning the recent loss of his son, asked that the ball be canceled. Although some Washington, DC residents felt very disappointed by Wilson's request, others were relieved. The Pension Building was often closed for over a week in preparation for the ball, causing government business to shut down.

President-Elect, Warren G. Harding, also requested that the inaugural committee do away with the elaborate ball (and the parade as well) in 1921, hoping to set an example of thrift and simplicity. The committee complied. Instead, the chairman of the inaugural ball committee hosted a huge private party at his home. Subsequent inaugurations followed this trend, with charity balls becoming the fashion for the inaugurations of Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The Revival of Inaugural Balls 

President Harry Truman revived the official ball in 1949. Organizers for Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1953 inaugural ball added a second event due to the great demand for tickets. Four years later, Eisenhower's second inauguration featured four balls. Kennedy attended five in 1961. President Carter attempted to strip the balls of their glitz and glamour in 1977, calling them parties and charging no more than twenty-five dollars per person, but by the second inauguration of William Clinton (1997), the number of balls reached an all-time high of fourteen. George W. Bush's inauguration in 2001 saw the number of official balls decline to eight, and his second inauguration in 2005 was celebrated with nine official balls. President Barack Obama attended official inaugural balls in 2009. Perhaps your class can research how many are planned for 2013. 

More Inauguration Resources: 

George Washington: The President without Precedent

Pupils study the first president and how he was reluctant to assume the responsibility of the nation's presidency.

The Jackson Inauguration: King Mob or Champion of Democracy

Andrew Jackson was the first president to be elected from outside of the original thirteen colonies. For many reasons, his inauguration was different than any prior inaugurations. In this resource, your class will discover why.

The Inauguration and the Constitution

An in-depth look into the importance of the peaceful transfer of power and how it sheds light on our enlightened democractic history.