The Inauguration of a United States President and Vice-President is one of the most spectacular and peculiar events on the official calendar. It took a Constitutional Amendment to actually set the date and time for the actual ending of the term of office.
The 20th Amendment was added in order to clarify the time frame of the terms of office for the President, Vice-President, Senators, and Representatives. Section 1. of the Amendment says:
“The terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January, and the terms of Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3d day of January, of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin.”
Prior to passage of the 20th Amendment, Inauguration Day for the executive and vice executive was traditionally held on March 4th or if the 4th was a Sunday, March 5th. The date was selected by an awkward combination of precedent, tradition, and statute.
Except in the case of the death of the prior executive, there is the need of a time gap between the election of a new President and the beginning of the term of office. A new President must choose cabinet members and important administration officials. There is also the need to be briefed on current issues like security and the economy in order for there to be a smooth transition of power.
Before the 20th Century, travel to Washington DC took much longer from the farthest reaches of national territory. In other words, the transition from lame duck President to new President was much slower. The long period between early November and early March didn’t cause too many major problems until 1860-1861. In that case the time lapse contributed to severe setbacks during the prelude to the American Civil War.
Historians call that time period “the secession winter”. Following the election of Abraham Lincoln in November of 1860, lame duck President James Buchanan was practically helpless as secessionist radicals seized federal forts and armaments. The Civil War was almost a defeat for the United States before it actually began. By March of 1861, the newly sworn in Lincoln hit the ground running in order to make up for lost time and planning. Because of the gap, the Confederacy had a major head-start and enjoyed a great advantage.
One would think that because of the terrible crisis of leadership, that the inauguration date of a new administration would have been moved to a much earlier date. However, it was not. It took another earth shattering event to instigate this change.
As the Great Depression set in and started to drag on and on, so did the lame duck Presidency of Herbert Hoover. The outgoing Republican was averse to communicating with his Democratic rival, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The nation had to patiently wait for the promised action from the newly selected chief executive. In addition to the crisis, the US enjoyed speedier transportation and communication methods. These frustrating realizations finally motivated the citizens and government to propose and soon adopt the 20th Amendment to the Constitution.
The Constitution and Amendment 20 do not require an elaborate Inauguration rite nor ceremony. There is only one Constitutional requirement for the President to fulfill. That is enumerated in Article II, Section 1. of the 20th Amendment.
“Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:–‘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.'”
That is all that is legally needed. There is no requirement that the Supreme Court Chief Justice administer the oath, nor the presence of the Congressional delegation, nor other dignitaries be present. Also, neither the original Constitutional language nor the amendment require the phrase, “So help me God.” The traditional use of the phrase was first used during the swearing in of Chester Arthur on September 22, 1881 following the death of President James Garfield in office.
The swearing in of the Vice-President, at first, was performed quietly in the Senate Chamber of the Capitol. Eventually, the VP’s oath was moved to the same platform as the President. The Vice-President-elect takes his oath then delivers a short speech as a prelude to the Presidential ceremonies.
There is also no legal requirement that an office-holder swear the oath upon the Christian Bible. So far, only John Q. Adams, Franklin Pierce, and Theodore Roosevelt refrained from using a Bible during his 1901 Inauguration. The other Presidents are assumed to have used a Bible, except Lyndon Johnson during his first swearing in. A Catholic Missal that belonged to President Kennedy was used onboard the Air Force One aircraft. The act of oath taking with the right hand on a Bible began with George Washington for his first Inauguration.
Ever since George Washington’s first Inauguration, the ceremonies and activities have taken on a regal, almost royal flavor. The numerous parades and balls have been scheduled ever since the dawning of the Republic. The Presidential Inaugural Committee is the only legal organization authorised to raise and distribute money for the events other than the official ceremony.
Except for Lyndon Johnson’s first swearing in following the assassination of John Kennedy, most modern Inaugurations have taken place on January 20th. When the 20th fell on a Sunday, three Presidents officially began their terms on the 21st–Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama.
There were also three times when in-coming Presidents had to retake their oaths. Chester Arthur, Calvin Coolidge, and Barack Obama. You may remember that Chief Justice John Roberts recited the words out of order during the public ceremony in 2009. President Obama later repeated the oath taking, more privately.