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I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

With these words, American presidents are sworn into office every four years. Every president must take the oath at the beginning of his or her term of office. If a president is re-elected, he or she must take the oath at the beginning of each term.

A presidential inauguration is much more than the oath of office, however. Although there are few other formal requirements, the inauguration has many traditions.

Date: Since 1937, when President Franklin Roosevelt took his second oath, inaugurations have happened on January 20 of the year following the November elections. (Before that time, inaugurations were celebrated on March 4.) If January 20 falls on a Sunday, celebrations are held January 21. President Barack Obama will celebrate his second inauguration on January 21, 2013.

Site: Inaugural ceremonies usually take place where Congress meets. President Thomas Jefferson was the first president inaugurated at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., in 1801. (Before that time, Congress met in New York and Philadelphia, where Presidents George Washington and John Adams were inaugurated.) All presidents have been inaugurated at the Capitol since, with the exception of the fourth inauguration of President Franklin Roosevelt in 1945. (That year, President Roosevelt was inaugurated at the White House.)

Organization: The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies (JCCIC) is a bipartisan group of Senators and Representatives. In 2013, members of the JCCIC are Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York), Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), Rep. Harry Reid (D-Nevada), Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Virginia), and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-California).

Members of the JCCIC are not the only organizers. The Joint Task Force-Armed Forces Inaugural Committee has always participated in presidential inaugurations, to recognize the president’s role as the military commander-in-chief. The Presidential Inaugural Committee, determined by the incoming president’s staff, organizes and provides funding for inaugural balls and other festivities.

Worship Service: All U.S. presidents have been Christian, and many have attended a public or private worship service on Inauguration Day. Most services are held in local churches, although President Jimmy Carter attended an interfaith service at the Lincoln Memorial prior to his inauguration in 1977.

Procession to the Capitol: After the worship service, the president-elect, vice president-elect and their spouses are accompanied to the White House by members of the JCCIC. The elected officials then take a car or limousine to the Capitol. President Jefferson (1801) and President Andrew Jackson (1829) walked to the Capitol.

Oaths of Office: The vice-president-elect is sworn in first. Vice-President John Garner was sworn in outside the Capitol for his second term with President Franklin Roosevelt in 1937. Prior to that, vice-presidents were sworn in during a separate ceremony in the Senate chamber, recognizing the vice-president’s position as president of the Senate.

The presidential oath of office is traditionally administered by the chief justice of the United States. Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath to President Obama in 2009, and will do the same in 2013.

Almost all presidents have taken the oath of office with their hand on a Bible. Some presidents use a family Bible, such as President Bill Clinton, who used the Bible given to him by his grandmother. Other presidents choose historic Bibles. President Obama used the so-called Lincoln Bible, which President Abraham Lincoln used at his first inauguration in 1861. (Obama will use the Lincoln Bible again in 2013.)

Some presidents have not taken the oath of office on Inauguration Day, usually because of a national tragedy. President Lyndon Johnson was sworn in by U.S. District Court Judge Sarah T. Hughes on Air Force One following the assassination of President John Kennedy in 1963. President Gerald Ford was sworn in by Chief Justice Warren Burger in the East Room of the White House following the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.

Inaugural Address: Every president has delivered an inaugural address—a speech outlining his vision for the country. President Washington’s second address is the shortest (135 words). President William Harrison’s address is the longest (8,445 words).

Many of the most famous phrases in American history are part of inaugural addresses, such as President Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” (1961) and President Franklin Roosevelt’s “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” (1933). President Lincoln’s entire second inaugural address (1865), most notable for the phrase “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” is engraved on the Lincoln Memorial.

Inaugural Luncheon: After the oath of office has been taken, the JCCIC plays host to the new president and vice-president at a luncheon at the Capitol. This has been a tradition since President Dwight Eisenhower’s first inauguration in 1953.  

Inaugural Parade: The most festive part of Inauguration Day is probably the inaugural parade, in which the president, vice-president, and their families walk or ride down Pennsylvania Avenue, from the Capitol to the White House. At the White House, the president views the parade from the Presidential Reviewing Stand.

The parade is organized by the Joint Task Force-Armed Forces Inaugural Committee, with participants chosen by the Presidential Inaugural Committee. Participants almost always include military regiments (including many ROTC groups), veterans’ organizations, marching bands, dance companies, and floats sponsored by citizen groups.

Inaugural Balls: Supporters of the new president and vice-president have organized an exclusive party on Inauguration Day ever since President Washington’s first inauguration in 1789. In 1953, President Eisenhower’s supporters added a second ball to the evening’s festivities.

Today, the Presidential Inaugural Committee plans many official balls. In 2009, President Obama attended ten official inaugural balls, out of more than 120 events.

  1. Inaugural addresses sometimes have themes. In 2013, President Obama’s theme will be "Faith in America’s Future." What political issues do you think President Obama will talk about in this inaugural address?

  2. One of the most anticipated parts of recent inaugurations has been the choice of musical guests. "Queen of Soul" Aretha Franklin memorably performed at President Obama’s inauguration in 2009. If you were part of President Obama’s Presidential Inaugural Committee, what musicians would you choose to perform at the 2013 ceremony? Why?

  3. In 2009, there were more than 120 inaugural balls. Each state has its own ball, and many citizen groups hold their own. The Entrepreneur Inaugural Ball, for example, is held by leaders of the business community. The Hip-Hop Inaugural Ball is hosted by hip-hop pioneer Russell Simmons and focuses on entertainment interests. The Green Inaugural Ball is sponsored by leaders in the conservation and clean-energy movements. If you were part of President Obama’s Presidential Inaugural Committee, what sort of inaugural balls would you want the president to attend in 2013? Why?

  • President Barack Obama’s first inauguration (January 20, 2009) drew the largest crowd of any presidential inauguration. In fact, it was the largest crowd ever to attend an event in Washington, D.C.! Between 1.1 and 1.8 million people showed up for the festivities!
  • The first inauguration of President Ronald Reagan (January 20, 1981) drew the largest television audience. Almost 42 million people watched on TV.
  • President Obama’s 2009 inauguration earned a record number of people watching the event online. About 7 million people watched the swearing-in ceremony through streaming video.
address
Noun

a formal or official speech.

assassinate
Verb

to murder someone of political importance.

Bible
Noun

holy book of the Christian religion.

bipartisan
adjective, noun

including members of both major political parties (in the U.S., Republicans and Democrats).

Capitol
Noun

official building used by the U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C.

charity
Noun

kindness or generosity.

Christian
Noun

people and culture focused on the teachings of Jesus and his followers.

Congress
Noun

legislative branch of the government, responsible for making laws. The U.S. Congress has two bodies, the House of Representatives and the Senate.

election
Noun

selection of people to public office by vote.

inauguration
Noun

ceremony that officially marks the beginning of a leader's term in office.

malice
Noun

evil, hostile, or wanting to cause harm.

military
Noun

armed forces.

resignation
Noun

formal act or statement giving up a title or position.

ROTC
adjective, noun

(reserve officer training corps) students who are given training to become military officers.

tragedy
Noun

very sad event.

veteran
Noun

person who has served their country in a military capacity.

White House
adjective, noun

official residence of the president of the United States, in Washington, D.C.