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Past and Present

Past & Present: The Inauguration Is An Important Tradition


On January 20th, Donald Trump will be sworn in as President of the United States. While the Constitution only stipulates that the president make an “oath or affirmation,” the inauguration is so significant that there have only been four out-going presidents who did not attend the inauguration of their successor, in all cases, their bitter, political rival.

There have been a few significant changes to the ceremony since Robert Livingston, the Chancellor of New York State, swore in George Washington in 1789 at Federal Hall in New York City. In June 1800, the federal government moved from its temporary home in New York City to Washington, D.C., and inaugural events followed. Because households needed time to move to Washington, the inauguration originally took place in March, not January. But in 1933, after waiting the long, four months to begin his New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt supported ratification of the 20th Amendment, officially changing the date from March 4th to January 20th.

Until 1981, all inaugural ceremonies had taken place on the eastern side of the Capitol. But Ronald Reagan chose to have his ceremonies take place on the western side. Two apocryphal stories surround this change. First, Reagan wanted to be sworn in facing west, toward his home state of California. Second, Reagan, ever the showman, believed that the United States’ past was in Europe—to the east—and its future had been and always would be to the west. Regardless, all ceremonies since 1981 have taken place on the western side of the Capitol.

In ten days, the 45th President of the United States will be sworn into office after an acrimonious election and unusual transition period. Whether you watch, ignore, protest, or attend the events, the inauguration of the President remains an important tradition that signals the beginning of a new administration.