Politics on Point: The Pomp and Circumstance of Presidential Inaugurations

The peaceful transfer of power from one U.S. president to the next takes place during their inauguration ceremony. Nick walks us through the traditions surrounding the big day including the new president's address and ball.

Read the Script

[Nick] Every four years on January 20th, we mark the beginning of a new presidential term through an inauguration ceremony, and presidents who are re-elected get this special ceremony twice. The Inauguration has become a nationally televised event, with speeches, performances, and parades.

But the only part of this ceremony that's actually required by our Constitution is a simple one-sentence promise: the Presidential Oath of Office.

- I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear.

- I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear.

- That I will faithfully execute.

- That I will faithfully execute.

- The office of President of the United States.

- The office of President of the United States.

[Nick] The same oath that every president has sworn to, beginning with George Washington in 1789. The exact moment when a president-elect concludes the oath signals that he or she is now officially president and commander-in-chief. This process signals a peaceful transfer of power from one elected president to another.

And the remarkable thing about our democracy is that we've made this peaceful transfer 45 times. The presidents of the past have handed power over to both political allies and despised rivals. President Trump's inauguration was attended by former presidents, and even his once-rival, Hillary Clinton.

Through the generations, inaugural traditions have endured. The inaugural parades began as a spontaneous march down Pennsylvania Avenue. Thomas Jefferson, the first president to be inaugurated in Washington, walked from the Capitol Building to the White House after his inauguration and was followed by well-wishers. This tradition continues as a planned procession, with most presidents, including Trump, getting out of their cars and walking part of the way to honor Jefferson's tradition.

Another tradition that's been passed from president to president is the inaugural address.

- Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.

[Nick] The address sets the tone for the incoming presidency, and is often a call for unity, something that has always been necessary after tense elections. But there are no requirements for the speech. It's just a chance for the new president to speak to the public.

- From this day forward, it's going to be only America first.

[Nick] After the business of the swearing-in and speech, the new president gets to loosen his tie and celebrate at some swanky parties. Many fancy inaugural balls were held all over the city to celebrate the president's election, and after a night of traditional celebration, the president finally got to turn in at his new house, the White House.

Instructional Links

Website Article: Smithsonian, Tween Tribune, Why Do We Play "Hail to the Chief” for the President | Leveled article. Teacher may sign in for lesson plan & quiz.

Classroom Resources: TeachersFirst Special Topics Collection | List of reviewed resources

Website Article: Kids.Gov, Inauguration

Quiz: National Archives, Inaugural Quiz! | Answers link to primary sources.

Website Article: Education World, Hail to the Chief: Inauguration Lessons | 10 lesson ideas

Website Article: National Constitution Center, Nothing Less than a Miracle’: The Constitution and the Peaceful Transition of Power. | History of past presidential transitions.

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