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 their term of office. If a president is re-elected, they must take the oath at the beginning of each term.
A presidential inauguration is much more than the oath of office. Although there are few other formal requirements, there are many traditions associated with presidential inaugurations, including the date and location of the inauguration ceremony.
Since 1937, when President Franklin Roosevelt took his second oath, inaugurations have happened on January 20 of the year following the November general election. (Before that time, inaugurations were celebrated on March 4.) If January 20 falls on a Sunday, celebrations are held January 21. For instance, in 2013, President Barack Obama celebrated his second inauguration on Monday January 21.
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.) Since Adams, all regular inaugurations have taken place at the Capitol. One exception is the fourth inauguration of President Franklin Roosevelt in 1945. (That year, President Roosevelt was inaugurated at the White House. Exceptional inaugurations, which usually take place because of the death or incapacitation of a sitting president, have taken place in different locations and various dates since the first such case, when John Tyler was inaugurated at a hotel in Washington, D.C. following the death of president William Henry Harrison.)
Inauguration day festivities are primarily organized by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies (JCCIC). The JCCIC is a bipartisan group of Senators and Representatives.
However, members of the JCCIC are not the only organizers. The Joint Task Force-National Capital Region (JTR-NTR) 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. Here is a chronological overview of what traditions and ceremonies a typical inauguration day entails:
Worship Service: Almost all U.S. presidents have been Christian, or raised in that faith, and many have chosen to attend a public or private Christian worship service on Inauguration Day. The tradition of attending a worship service on the morning of inauguration day was started by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who attended services on the morning of his first swearing-in in 1933.
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.
With some exception, most 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. For both of his inaugurations, President Obama used the so-called Lincoln Bible, which President Abraham Lincoln used at his first inauguration in 1861.
Some presidents have not taken the oath of office on Inauguration Day, usually because of a national tragedy. For example, 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. Likewise, 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).
Inaugural addresses have given rise to many well-known phreases that we continue to quote today, 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-National Capital Region, 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.
Although this order of inauguration festivities is a time-honored American tradition, with some elements dating back to George Washington, in extraordinary times, traditions can shift. In 2021, the inauguration of President-Elect Joseph R. Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris will diverge significantly from the norm, as large portions of the public festivities have been changed or reimagined due to public health concerns around the COVID-19 pandemic as well as safety concerns due to threats of political insurrection from supporters of the outgoing administration. However, while the celebratory trappings of the 2021 inauguration will differ from past years, the oaths of office remain the same, and America’s democratic process of the peaceful transition of power will continue for its 244th year and 59th inauguration.
- 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.
a formal or official speech.
to murder someone of political importance.
holy book of the Christian religion.
including members of both major political parties (in the U.S., Republicans and Democrats).
official building used by the U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C.
kindness or generosity.
people and culture focused on the teachings of Jesus and his followers.
legislative branch of the government, responsible for making laws. The U.S. Congress has two bodies, the House of Representatives and the Senate.
selection of people to public office by vote.
ceremony that officially marks the beginning of a leader's term in office.
evil, hostile, or wanting to cause harm.
formal act or statement giving up a title or position.
(reserve officer training corps) students who are given training to become military officers.
very sad event.
person who has served their country in a military capacity.
official residence of the president of the United States, in Washington, D.C.