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History You Should Probably Know: The Presidential Inauguration

History You Should Probably Know: The Presidential Inauguration

We’re kicking off the new year with a new column! In this series we’ll be highlighting historical days, people, and events we deem notable. Sort of a cheat sheet, if you will, to share and explore with your children. (And you may recognize the reference to the magazine!)  Historical movements and moments are inherently teachable moments, and we want to help organize your thoughts around how to introduce them. First up...

Inauguration Day

The Presidential Inauguration happens once every four years, and is, simply, the swearing in of the next President of the United States. 

What: Inauguration Day, or the peaceful transfer of Presidential power

Where: Washington, D.C.

When: January 20

How: The incoming President is administered the oath of office—a swearing of allegiance to uphold the Constitution.

The first Presidential inauguration took place in New York City for George Washington on April 30, 1789. (Interestingly, he was scheduled to be inaugurated on March 4, but weather prevented Congress from meeting, and thus the beginning of our nation under the original Constitution was delayed by almost two months. Subsequent incoming Presidents took their oath of office on March 4 as well). 

At the time, Congress was to decide the date of inauguration because the Constitution did not denote a specific date. Article II of the Constitution held this vague nature of when an elected President actually became the President, and was finally settled by the 20th amendment, which took effect before Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second term began on Jan. 20, 1937. (It specified the exact time and date—noon on January 20—two months after the Presidential election. The 20th amendment also clarified the Presidential succession plan).

The resulting two-month lag between election and inauguration is called the “lame duck” period (we borrowed the term from the British, who first applied the insult to bankrupt businessmen in the 18th century and then to 19th-century politicians whose time in office was quickly running out). Inauguration day holds many traditional ceremonies necessary for the incoming President, and they are all planned by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. The day’s activities include: a special procession from the White House to the Capitol, the swearing-in ceremony, the inaugural address, signings, luncheons, and in some years, parades. Dolley and James Madison started the tradition of a White House reception and inaugural ball, both of which are still celebrated today. 

Dolley Madison
Portrait of Dolley Madison (1848) by William S. Elwell, 
painted towards the end of her life. 
National Portrait Gallery, 
Smithsonian Institution, CCO. 


Here are a few activities to help you teach your children about the presidential inauguration and its ceremonies and traditions:

  1. Swearing In

Share the full presidential oath with your children: “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." 

Hold your own swearing in ceremony; use a dictionary to find unfamiliar words to understand their call to action; discuss the gravity of these words and what they mean in the context of the President’s daily duties; have your children create their own “oath of office” in the context of your home and their duties and character; use this as an opportunity to discuss the Constitution (the highest law in the U.S.) and why the president must swear to defend it. 

  1. Speech! Speech!

The inaugural address by the incoming President is the opportunity for a glimpse into what the call is for the next four years. Have your children write their own speech, or discuss what they would say to the nation. You can also ask, what do you think the purpose is of the address? What do you think the future should hold and how, as a president, should we act to get there?

  1. Making history

Discussion points for the 2021 inauguration, specifically could include: The new Vice President Kamala Harris being sworn in will make history as the first woman vice president, but also the first Black and Asian-American vice president! This year’s ceremony will also reflect the crisis our nation currently faces, with dialed back public gatherings, but with plenty of viewing opportunities online