The U.S. presidential inauguration is the ultimate symbol of the peaceful transfer of power in America. Even after contested elections—and when the union among the states was in peril—presidents have stood before the public and sworn an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Inauguration Day’s many traditions help reinforce that symbolic role. Typically, the day begins with the president-elect traveling with the outgoing president and congressional leaders to Capitol Hill to take the oath of office and deliver an inaugural address before throngs of people. The new president then leads a parade back to the White House, and caps off the day by attending multiple inaugural balls held throughout the nation’s capital.
These traditions are more than just pomp, says Matthew Costello, senior historian at the White House Historical Association. “To be this politically stable with one form of government is unusual. So when we talk about what makes America unique or exceptional, these are the moments where we get to see it in action—we get to see one president handing power off to the next.”
The 2021 inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden will break with tradition in many ways. President Donald Trump will become the fourth president in U.S. history to skip his successor’s inauguration, which takes place a week after he was impeached for inciting a mob to storm the U.S. Capitol in protest of the election. Members of the public will not be invited to attend and, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the celebratory balls have been canceled and the parade will now be held virtually. (See pictures: As Biden’s inauguration nears, the nation’s capital goes still.)
But the symbolism of this year’s ceremony will be as critical as any in years past. Here’s a look at how inaugural traditions have evolved, and how they reinforce the peaceful transfer of power that’s one of the foundations of America’s constitutional democracy.
The first inauguration
The U.S. Constitution stipulates that a president must take the oath of office before the start of a term. Even presidents who are reelected swear the oath of office again at the beginning of each four-year term—a tradition that started with the country’s first president, George Washington, whose inauguration also set the standard for some of the day’s important rituals.
On April 30, 1789, Washington was escorted by a military contingent to New York City’s Federal Hall, then home to the U.S. Congress. He was sworn in on a balcony as hundreds of people looked on from the streets below, then delivered his inaugural address from the Senate chamber. After a church service and a quiet dinner at home, Washington took in a firework display that lit up the New York skies.
For nearly 150 years after Washington’s first inauguration, the ceremony was held in early March. In 1933, the ratification of the 20th Amendment moved the date to noon on January 20 to shorten the transition period that had proven fraught during pivotal times such as the Civil War and the Great Depression.
The first peaceful transfer of power
Although Washington had startled the world by stepping down after two terms—relinquishing the presidency to Vice President John Adams in 1797—America’s first real test of the peaceful transfer of power occurred with the 1801 inauguration of Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third president.
Tensions between Adams and Jefferson were running high following a bitter election. They further escalated during the transition period as Adams nominated a slew of judges in a move that was seen as an attempt to hamstring his successor. On Inauguration Day, however, Adams stepped aside and Jefferson delivered a conciliatory address, promising to protect the rights of those who hadn’t voted for him and calling for Americans to “unite with one heart and one mind.”
Although Adams didn’t attend Jefferson’s inauguration—he left the capital by stagecoach that morning—it’s unclear whether that was because of the rancor between the two men or simply because the tradition wasn’t fully established.
Jefferson would attend his successor’s inauguration, and the only other outgoing presidents who have skipped it entirely were Adams’ son John Quincy Adams in 1829 and Andrew Johnson in 1869. Both men disliked their successors—Andrew Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant, respectively—while Johnson also resented having been impeached by the House of Representatives a year earlier.
In 1837, eight years after being snubbed by John Quincy Adams, Jackson not only attended Martin Van Buren’s inauguration but also became the first president to accompany his successor to the Capitol. Though it wouldn’t become a consistent tradition until the 20th century, Jackson’s example has been followed even by presidents who didn’t get along—such as Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who shared a silent ride to the Capitol in 1933.
The origins—and evolution—of inaugural traditions
Most of the other inaugural traditions that are iconic today can also be traced back to Thomas Jefferson. In 1801, he was the first president to be inaugurated at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., which was then still under construction. He invited the U.S. Marine Band to play at the ceremony and gave them the moniker “The President’s Own.”
After winning reelection four years later, Jefferson inspired the inaugural parade when a spontaneous gathering of people lined the streets to watch him ride on horseback to the White House—which he then opened to the public for the first inaugural open house.
In the years since, inaugural parades have become increasingly elaborate with floats, musical performances, and reviewing stands erected from which presidents watch the hours-long affair. In 1977, Jimmy Carter started the modern tradition of presidents walking back to the White House from the Capitol. As the White House Historical Association explains, Carter sought to signal to Americans that he would be a president who was “available for all citizens.”
Parades grew so long that presidents eventually stopped hosting receptions—though not before 1829, when Andrew Jackson had to escape a crush of 20,000 well-wishers through a White House window.
In 1809, James Madison became the first president to have a formal ball on Inauguration Day. Four hundred guests attended the ball, which was hosted by First Lady Dolley Madison at a hotel on Capitol Hill. Over the years, the tradition ballooned and, in modern years, there are usually dozens of official and unofficial inaugural balls.
Over the years, the ceremonies have become increasingly public affairs, with details shared more widely with each advance in technology. News of the presidential inauguration was first transmitted by telegraph in 1845 (James Polk), national radio broadcast in 1925 (Calvin Coolidge), television in 1949 (Harry Truman), and the internet in 1997 (Bill Clinton).
“Over time, what we see is a gradual expansion of having the public more involved as witnesses to history,” Costello says. “Having them be able to hear the inaugural addresses, be able to see the swearing-in ceremony.… It allows them to actually see the transfer of power.”
Inaugurations during times of crises
This year’s inauguration will be quite a bit different, with security restrictions due to both the pandemic and threats of violence. But inaugural rites have weathered national crises before—and have at times evolved to meet the moment.
In 1861, seven Southern states had just seceded from the Union in protest of the election of the anti-slavery Northerner Abraham Lincoln. According to the Library of Congress, the “federal government was on guard against insurrection and possible assassination attempt on Lincoln. Cannons, primed and loaded, lined Pennsylvania Avenue, and rooftop sharpshooters scoured the crowd of well-wishers below as the presidential party made its way eastward to the U.S. Capitol.” (Here are some of America’s most fraught presidential transitions.)
Lincoln nevertheless took the oath of office before the crowd and delivered an inaugural address appealing to his countrymen’s “better angels” to be “not enemies, but friends.” Four years later, in the midst of the Civil War, he stood again before a crowd to urge a divided nation to reconcile “with malice toward none; with charity for all.” Lincoln’s second inauguration also marked the first time that African Americans were invited to take part in an inaugural parade.
In 1945, another war prompted Franklin Roosevelt to pare down his fourth inaugural. In its fourth year of fighting World War II, the nation was rationing supplies, from food to gasoline to firewood. In the spirit of conservation, Roosevelt decided to cancel the inaugural parade and balls and have just a simple public swearing-in at the White House rather than the Capitol.
Several past U.S. vice presidents had emergency swearing-ins rather than inaugurations when their predecessors died in office. In 1881, Chester A. Arthur took the oath of office at his home in New York after James Garfield was shot. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge also had private swearing-in ceremonies, while Lyndon Johnson took the oath aboard Air Force One after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963.
In 2021, as the nation continues to reel from the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, Biden’s inauguration will be another test of the country’s perseverance during times of crisis. Although pandemic and security restrictions mean that most people will have to watch via television or the internet, Biden is expected to follow the example of his predecessor Lincoln and urge unity in a divided country. (Past inaugural addresses have shown the way forward through times of crisis.)
And although Trump will not attend Biden’s inauguration, Costello points out that former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton will be there, along with outgoing Vice President Mike Pence to send a message to U.S. citizens and the world.
“In a way, they’re the past guardians of democracy,” Costello says. “It’s signaling to the American people that they have faith in our representative government, and people can take some relief knowing that democracy is alive and is well.”