WASHINGTON (CNN) — At its essence, the presidential inaugural symbolizes American democracy’s peaceful transition or extension of power.
Every four years, the winner of the preceding November election swears to defend the Constitution. Cannons boom and bands play. It all unfolds outside in public, usually before a massive throng that thunders its approval.
The simple practice and symbolism of inaugurating a president has remained consistent throughout American history — 56 times before Sunday — although the date, the pomp and the ceremony have changed since George Washington took the first oath 224 years ago.
Thirteen years after the Declaration of Independence and more than a year and a half after the Constitution was ratified, Washington was sworn in on April 20, 1789, at Federal Hall in New York. The capital city later named for Washington was just a swamp at the time.
He set the precedent of kissing the Bible after the oath.
Franklin Pierce broke the tradition of kissing the Bible. He placed his left hand on it instead in 1853.
Washington is also credited with creating other traditions. For instance, he started the inaugural parade when government officials, members of Congress, Army units, and prominent citizens escorted him to the ceremony.
The oath of office is specified in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution. The oath for other federal officials, including the vice president, is not in the Constitution.
The oath of office reads, “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.
The “(or affirm)” allows the president-elect to choose to affirm or to swear the oath of office. Only Pierce and Herbert Hoover chose to affirm rather than swear their oath.
The words “so help me God” do not appear in the Constitutional oath. That phrase was supposedly ad-libbed by Washington, setting a precedent for future presidents.
President Barack Obama has requested his oath include the phrase.
A personal aspect of the inauguration is the Bible.
John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic president — his religious identity was a contentious issue in his run for office.
Only three presidents did not use a Bible: John Qunicy Adams opted for a volume of law; Theodore Roosevelt used no Bible or book at his first inauguration in 1901. Lyndon Johnson used John F. Kennedy’s Roman Catholic Missal during his hastily arranged swearing-in aboard Air Force One en route to Washington following Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
Obama will set a precedent with three Bibles.
Like fingerprints, no inaugural address is the same — they come in all lengths, tones and with all kinds of different motives. Some aim to set the agenda for the president’s term, others aim to define how the president will govern.
Washington delivered the shortest address at his second inauguration in Philadelphia. It totaled 135 words.
The longest was about 8,500 words and delivered by William Henry Harrison, who refused to wear coat on the cold March day in 1841. He caught a cold and died from pneumonia a month later.
Some memorable lines from inaugural addresses:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all.” – Abraham Lincoln, March 1865.
“Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” – Franklin
D. Roosevelt, March 1933.
“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” – John F. Kennedy, January 1961.
January 20 falls on a Sunday this year as it did in 1917, 1957 and 1985. As a result, Obama will take the official oath in a private ceremony that day at the White House. He will follow up with the public ceremony on Monday at the Capitol.
Obama will be the first president to have two oaths administered publicly and privately. In 2009, Chief Justice John Roberts flubbed the oath as he read it Obama during the public ceremony. They did it again the next day at the White House to leave no question
Thomas Jefferson was the first president inaugurated in Washington, March 1801.
The first inauguration on January 20 by decree of the 20th Amendment was in 1937.
Andrew Jackson was the first to take the oath on the East Front of the Capitol.
Ronald Reagan of California was the first to be inaugurated on the West Front of the Capitol in 1980.
Jimmy Carter, in 1976, was the first to walk from the Capitol to the White House.
The first inaugural streamed live on the Internet was Bill Clinton’s second ceremony in 1997.