Washington to Biden inaugural traditions

Joseph R. Biden
Joseph R. Biden

Official White House Photo by David Lienemann

January 20, 2021 marked the inauguration of the United States' 46th President, Joseph R. Biden, and Vice President, Kamala Harris. It was our nation's 59th inaugural event. It is also fitting that it marked an historic event of the first Asian-African American woman to attain the office of Vice President of the United States. Just 232 years earlier, the nation hailed George Washington as the first president of the United States of America when he was inaugurated at Federal Hall on April 30, 1789.

In George Washington's words, “The magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most experienced of her citizens, a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications, could not but overwhelm with despondence, one, who, inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpracticed in the duties of civil administration, ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies.

”The public ceremony was held on the west front of the United States Capital Building in Washington, D.C. President Biden was sworn in with his left hand on a family Bible from 1893. Held in Washington, D.C., the inaugural theme was “America United,” it “reflects the beginning of a new national journey that restores the soul of America, brings the country together.”

The inauguration itself also looked different, with the typical parade and inaugural balls giving way to safer virtual celebrations.

Although the inaugural ceremony has taken place in Washington, D.C. for more than two hundred years, many people do not know the first inauguration took place in New York City. When the founders drafted the Constitution in the late 1780s, they decided that New York would serve as the new government's capital. In 1788, the Confederation Congress scheduled the first inauguration for March of 1789. However, due to strong winter conditions in the northeast, the event was postponed until April.

On April 14, 1789, General George Washington received word that he had been unanimously elected president, and soon began his journey north. As he traveled from Mount Vernon, Virginia, to New York, huge crowds of Americans greeted and cheered him along the way. President Washington arrived in New York on April 23, where he was greeted by Governor George Clinton and a large crowd; he was inaugurated on April 30.
Washington's inauguration at Federal Hall (LOC)
This print from 1789 shows George Washington's inauguration on the second floor balcony of the recently remodeled Federal Hall.

Library of Congress

Leaders of the recently formed government decided to use the old City Hall building,originally constructed in the early 1700s, as the site for the new capitol. The building stood at the junction of Wall, Broad, and Nassau Streets, in the heart of the city's financial district. Pierre Charles L'Enfant remodeled the building in preparation for its new purpose and it was subsequently renamed Federal Hall. Shortly after completing that project, L'Enfant began work on his most famous accomplishment, designing the new capital city of Washington, D.C.

People began to arrive at Washington's home on Cherry Street in the early light of April 30, 1789. A large crowd, including military units and other dignitaries, followed Washington's carriage on the short trek to Federal Hall, creating a large procession. Although much more formal, the traditional procession to the Capitol still continues today.

Although the Constitution does not require it, most presidents have sworn the oath of office with their right or left hands placed upon a Bible. Several of the Founding Fathers, including Washington, were Masons. The Bible used for the inaugural oath, printed in 1767, was the Altar Bible of St. John's Masonic Lodge, No. 1. Presidents George H.W. Bush, Carter, Eisenhower, and Harding also used the same Bible when they were inaugurated. When the Lodge is not using it, the Washington Bible is on display at Federal Hall National Memorial.

Washington recited the oath of office on the open air balcony of Federal Hall in front of hundreds of proud and excited Americans. The oath, as found in the Constitution, has not changed since it was first recited: "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." There is some question whether Washington added "So Help Me God" to the inaugural oath prescribed in the Constitution. The few written eyewitness accounts do not mention it. However, the phrase "So Help Me God" was included when swearing oaths required in the courts, the military, and other public offices and was an accepted part of such solemn commitments at the time.
Washington reciting the oath of office (LOC)
George Washington takes the oath of office.

Library of Congress

Washington's Inaugural Address (LOC)
President Washington addressing a joint session of Congress following his inauguration on April 30, 1789.

Library of Congress

The first president then turned and entered the building, officially beginning his duties as the executive of the government. He privately addressed a joint session of Congress, asking for support and further promising to respect the Constitution. Today, the president addresses the nation publicly, and the inaugural speech has become an opportunity to announce new ideas and look toward the future.

After addressing Congress, President Washington and other dignitaries walked to St. Paul's Chapel where they attended a church service. St. Paul's, a chapel of the Parish of Trinity Church, is the oldest surviving church building in Manhattan. While future presidents occasionally attended church on Inauguration Day, Franklin D. Roosevelt is widely credited with starting the modern tradition of attending a church service prior to taking the oath of office. In 1933, he and the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, attended morning services at St. John's Episcopal Church, also known as the "church of the presidents."
On May 7, 1789, Washington attended a celebration in his honor. Martha Washington did not initially accompany her husband to New York because she had stayed in Virginia to wrap up affairs at Mount Vernon. Although she missed the inauguration, she joined the president for the gala. Although not officially called the Inaugural Ball, that event also led to a modern tradition that officially began with James Madison's inaugural celebration in 1809. Today, multiple balls are held on the evening of Inauguration Day.
The Republican Court (Lady Washington's Reception Day)
This 1861 painting by Daniel Huntington is a romanticized depiction of the receptions that Martha Washington hosted when her husband served as president. Although less stately, the event on May 7, 1789 honoring the first president may have looked similar. 

Brooklyn Museum

In 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first president to be inaugurated on January 20, the date specified by the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution. Twice since then, and again in 2013, the public inaugural ceremony has been moved to January 21 because the twentieth has fallen on a Sunday. Both Presidents Eisenhower and Reagan had taken the oath privately on Sunday the twentieth.
2013 Presidential Inauguration
President Obama (2013) taking the oath of office with both Bibles.

Official White House Photo by Sonya N. Hebert

The 2013 presidential inauguration was special for another reason, however. This year, for only the second time, the president was inaugurated on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. To mark the occasion, President Obama used two Bibles for his public (after his private swearing-in Sunday) inauguration, one of which belonged to Dr. King. The second Bible, placed atop the King Bible, was used by President Lincoln at his 1861 inauguration.

The original Federal Hall was torn down in 1812 after the government moved the capital to Washington, D.C. An imposing US Customs House built in the Greek revival style was completed on the former site of Federal Hall in 1842. Today, that building is Federal Hall National Memorial, where the story of the first inauguration and early history of the federal government are honored.

Further Reading

Watch a video produced for CBS Sunday Morning about the first inauguration, featuring a Federal Hall Park Ranger: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=50139336n

More about Washington's inauguration:

Text of Washington's inaugural address to Congress:

Dates of presidential inaugurations:
Presidential Inaugurations - White House Historical Association (whitehousehistory.org)

More about the history of the Inaugural Ball:
Inaugural Balls - White House Historical Association (whitehousehistory.org)

The presidents' inaugural addresses:
Presidential Inaugurations: The Inaugural Address - White House Historical Association (whitehousehistory.org)

The Story of the Washington Bible:

Plaque Commemorating Washington's Arrival in New York:

Last updated: July 9, 2021

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