Greetings, time-travellers, and welcome to the first installment of “History Lessons,” a recurring feature here at The Looptail in which we take a look back at the past in order to make better sense of the present. With an almost inexhaustible supply of incredible-but-true stories, momentous events and colourful characters, history is, simply put, the greatest story ever told. Best of all: it never ends. So, without further ado, let’s fire up the wayback machine and take a trawl through yesteryear’s news. Excelsior!
In the spirit of grand beginnings and historic firsts, our subject this week is Inauguration Day, the official commencement of a new term of office for the President of the United States.
Since 1937, the newly-minted President has been sworn into office on January 20 at the US Capitol in Washington, an occasion marked by much pomp, circumstance and celebration. But it hasn’t always been this way; between 1793 and 1933, Inauguration Day actually took place on March 4, the date the United States Constitution took effect in 1789. For 140 years, 27 men—every President from Washington to FDR—officially assumed the duties of office on March 4 (or March 5, in the event that the fourth happened to fall on the Sabbath). The March 4 start-date tradition even predates the establishment of Washington, D.C., as the nation’s capital; George Washington’s first inauguration was held in New York, while his second and John Adams’ first took place in Philadelphia.
According to the Constitution, the oath of office is the only official act an elected President must complete before he or she can get to work and run the country. But that wouldn’t make for much of a ceremony, would it? As the tradition has evolved, parades, speeches, luncheons and balls have been added to the agenda, stretching the event from a functional hour to a week-long extravaganza.
It is now customary for the President to make some sort of inaugural address in which he or she lays our a vision for the coming years. Depending on the speaker, these speeches can be breezy and brief or very, very long. George Washington holds the record for the shortest inaugural address, getting it all out in a breezy 135 words in 1793. William Henry Harrison’s 8,445-word epic from 1841 remains the longest-ever. (All that talking must’ve taken quite a toll on Harrison; he died just 32 days into his term.)
Speeches are nice and all, but everybody loves a parade. Thomas Jefferson started the traditional presidential march down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House for his second inaugural in 1805, and remains the only President to hoof it both to and from the ceremony. Nowadays, the President usually walks only part of the way. The only President to skip the parade so far was Ronald Reagan in 1985, when high winds and freezing temperatures compelled everyone to stay inside.
And finally, what better way to kick off your first day at work than with a rousing pump-up jam? “Hail to the Chief,” the President’s official theme, was first associated with the office in 1815 to commemorate both the deceased George Washington and the end of the War of 1812. When the President is in the building, the song is always preceded by four little da-da-da-daaas and drum rolls called “ruffles and flourishes.” Martin van Buren was the first man to be officially introduced with it at his inauguration in 1837, but the theme didn’t start to accompany the President everywhere until James Polk took the job. According to historians, Polk wasn’t exactly the most charismatic guy, and his handlers insisted the song be played to announce his arrival at functions in order to spare him the embarrassment of walking into a room and going unnoticed.