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Presentation Inaugurations: Stepping into History

The Inaugural Oath

Since George Washington's appearance on the balcony of New York City's Federal Hall in 1789, the term of each American president has started with a single sentence.

Chief Justice Warren E. Burger administering the oath of office to Ronald Reagan on the west front of the U.S. Capitol, January 20, 1981

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

Although many promises are made as presidential candidates vie for votes, the oath is the first one that really counts. It transforms a citizen into a president and, according to the second article of the Constitution, signals the beginning of a new administration.

The president takes the oath of office in a formal ceremony, usually in a public place, surrounded by representatives of all three branches of government. The oath has most often been administered by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court or another judge.


A president commits to upholding the Constitution and the people commit to accepting the leadership of the new president. Ronald Reagan described this transition in his 1981 inaugural address:

"[t]he orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution…. In the eyes of many in the world, this every-4-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle."

The generally smooth transition from one president to the next is probably appreciated most when it doesn't exist. In 1877, Democrats boycotted Rutherford B. Hayes' inauguration to protest his controversial electoral victory. During his inaugural address, Hayes emphasized a non-partisan commitment to the nation and proclaimed, "He who serves his country best serves his party best."

Reflection questions:

  • What does it imply that the president swears (or affirms) an oath to uphold the Constitution?
  • How does this distinguish American presidents from leaders prior to the founding of the United States?