Inauguration and the power of American ritual

The presidential inauguration makes manifest the complexity and beauty of the American Dream.
Outgoing US President Jimmy Carter and president-elect Ronald Reagan en route to Reagan's Presidential Inauguration Ceremony, January 1981 Credit: Ronald Reagan Library / Getty Images
Outgoing US President Jimmy Carter and president-elect Ronald Reagan en route to Reagan's Presidential Inauguration Ceremony, January 1981 Credit: Ronald Reagan Library / Getty Images
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Joe Biden’s swearing in as the 46th President of the United States was a political spectacle rooted in an American fixation on ceremony that has evolved over several centuries. This is the closest public occasion America has to a coronation, a triumphant crowning of the modern Caesars and solemn manifestation of US power.

Excluding the oaths of office President-elects are obliged to declaim, and the date of the event, the US constitution stipulates little else about the preferred procedures of what has become a venerated day. The prayers, poems and parades that accompany the ceremony are panoplies that have arisen out of the expectation that this end to the transition of power will mark a renewal in the Republic’s attitude and approach. It has all the trappings an elective monarch might invoke to legitimise their assumption of supreme power, but it always offers a memorable reminder of the basic tenets of the American constitution and its unending dream of equal opportunity. 

The ritual traces its roots to the birth of the Republic. On 30 April 1789, George Washington swore to defend the constitution and to serve the people of the United States in the nascent nation’s then capital, New York City. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson was the first President to be inaugurated in Washington DC. During his second inauguration, he rode from Capitol Hill to his residence at the White House, cheerfully pursued by a crowd of mechanics and musicians. This impromptu display was the first inauguration day parade.

The famous phrase of ‘I solemnly swear’ was used by George Washington in 1789, but today’s general draft of the oath was written in the 1860s. There have been numerous instances where either those administering the oath or those taking it have slipped up. Chief Justice Melville Fuller misquoted the oath during President Taft’s inauguration in 1909, but without the scrutiny of live broadcasting this scandalous error was widely missed.

Twenty years later, Taft himself misquoted the oath while administering President Hoover’s inauguration. Most recently, following an incorrect administration of the oath by Chief Justice John Roberts at Barack Obama’s first inauguration, the oath of office had to be re-administered the next day at the White House.

After the sacred words are said, the new President addresses the nation, and now the outside world, expressing their intentions and usually make a plea for unity.

Some of the most famous orations ever given by modern statesmen were delivered at Capitol Hill in the eerie atmosphere of inauguration day. Quotes such as ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’ from FDR and ‘ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country’ by JFK owe much of their gravity to having been delivered at this edifying event. Of all political occasions, it is probably the most regular and profound contributor to the western canon of political rhetoric.

A secular occasion, the inauguration nonetheless makes ample use of Biblical symbolism and citations. Washington recited Genesis 49:13, Lincoln, Matthew 7:1; 18:7, Woodrow Wilson, Psalms 43-46, Nixon, Isaiah 2:2-4 and Clinton, Galatians 6:8. The President-elect often, though not always, takes his oath on an open or closed bible. Trump, like Obama, chose to use Lincoln’s bible as well as that of his own family.

The inclusion of pseudo-religious relics demonstrates the continued importance of Christianity in the secular state of America and the persistent authority religion has in the process of anointing a new leader.

Poetry also has its place in the proceedings. Kennedy quoted Robert Frost. Obama read Maya Angelou. And acclaimed poets – or new poets as happened this week – are sometimes invited to read after the presidential address.

In the ensuing parade, the president is able to advertise his beliefs. In 1865, Lincoln did so when he invited a group of African-Americans to join his victorious march through Washington at the end of the Civil War. The contrast between the solemn ceremony on the West portico of Capitol Hill and the colourful march towards the White House encapsulates the divergent American proclivities of seriousness and frivolity, of lachrymose severity and eager optimism. Contemporary inaugurations – not in pandemic years – are accompanied by extravagant and expensive partying in Washington. 

The cause for celebration? With the imposing backdrop of neo-classical architecture, of monuments to American democracy, the theory is that the people’s proud representative begins his tenure at the apex of global affairs, with more raw military and economic might than any other previous incarnation of government. 

What is evident of the American ethic during this ceremonious date? The message is that any citizen born in the United States can be invested with presidential powers so long as they solemnly vow to serve after having won a mandate from the electorate. It is the most obvious example of the American Dream.

The idea is that this is the hallowed result of the great lottery of democracy, that some unknown girl or boy tilling the earth or serving food or driving a cab can climb the embattled slopes of American politics to assume the most powerful office in human history.

Heraclitus wrote that ‘from the strain of binding opposites, comes harmony’. This event reassembles the shattered relations of a country after a political campaign. It is designed to rebuild a demolished confidence in the abilities of government to save mankind. This inherently optimistic event asserts the sovereign jurisdiction of a democratic selection and the healthy submission of free people to the will of a majority. In the wake of the inauguration, the world seems to change, at least for a little while. And then politics begins again.

Harry Cluff

Harry Cluff is Literary Editor at Reaction.

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