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Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller administering the oath of office to Benjamin Harrison on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol, March 4, 1889

[Detail] Administering the oath of office to Benjamin Harrison, 1889.

America at War | The Cold War | Economic Policies | Inaugural Ceremonies and Tradition | Westward Expansion

4. Inaugural Ceremonies and Tradition

The oath of office is the only Constitutional requirement when swearing in a new president, but it's just one aspect of the inaugural tradition. The delivery of an inaugural address, the use of a Bible during the oath, and an inaugural ball are just some of the traditions dating back to George Washington's first inauguration in 1789. Marvin Kranz, a historical specialist at the Library of Congress, describes the precedents Washington set for future presidents in a RealVideo clip that is part of the Special Presentation, “Historical Insights.”

A history of inaugural balls is provided in the 1933 essay, “Inaugural Balls of the Past.” This article from Franklin Roosevelt's first inaugural program describes the inaugural ball as “one touch of royalty among all our republican institutions” and briefly chronicles historic moments, from the dance celebrating Washington's inauguration to Mrs. Woodrow Wilson's cancellation of the ball in 1913 with the exclamation, “I cannot bear to think of a ball, with modern dances, when Woodrow is inaugurated.” Photographs from different inaugural balls are available by selecting Balls (Parties) in the Subject Index. Additional souvenir programs from 1881, 1885, and 1889 are available by selecting Programme in the Subject Index.

Warren Harding had reservations about the inaugural ceremonies. A search on Edward McLean results in a January 12, 1921 telegram and letter dismissing the committee that planned these events. In the letter, Harding wrote:

[T]he impression of extravagant expenditure . . . would make me a very unhappy participant. I know full well that the government outlay is relatively small . . . but it is timely and wholesome to practice the utter denial of public expenditure where there is no real necessity. . .

In Harding's inaugural address (which was followed with a very small parade), he discussed the nation's economic outlook:

We can reduce the abnormal expenditures, and we will. . . . We contemplate the immediate task of putting our public household in order. We need a rigid and yet sane economy, combined with fiscal justice, and it must be attended by individual prudence and thrift, which are so essential to this trying hour and reassuring for the future.

  • How do the inaugural ceremony and traditions reflect the democratic nature of the United States?
  • To what extent might they reflect the disposition of one man, George Washington?
  • What is the value of adding “a touch of royalty” to the proceedings of a republic?
  • Do inaugural balls provide this “touch of royalty”? Explain. Who attends an inaugural ball?
  • How does Warren Harding's cancellation of inaugural ceremonies relate to his discussion of “abnormal expenditures”?
  • Did Harding's sparse inauguration set a tone for his presidency?
  • Do you think that he was right in dismissing the inaugural committee?