This week, we here at the W.R. Poage Legislative Library have been reflecting on the long, sometimes tumultuous history of the Presidential Inauguration. You might not imagine that choosing a date to swear in the President would inspire much debate among legislators, but the forward march of progress has always necessitated discussion. In 1937 the official date was changed to the 20th of January following a Presidential election. Fittingly enough, it was the Twentieth Amendment which cemented the date. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first President to be inaugurated on this date for his second term. Previous presidents had been sworn in on March 4th, the date Congress returned to session.
Before the Twentieth Amendment, Presidents were elected in November and were unable to serve for nearly four months. For Congressmen, the time between election and taking the oath could extend to nearly a full year. This restricted the ability of legislators and the executive to respond to national crises, such as the American Civil War and the Great Depression. By changing the date of inauguration, Congress was attempting to create a more nimble, efficient, and responsive federal government.
Congressman Chet Edwards wrote after President George W. Bush’s second inauguration in 2005,
Though the tradition of a presidential inauguration may seem routine at times today, we must remember that it represents the best of our democratic values, the same values that have helped to shape the direction of the world for more than a century. Americans of all backgrounds and political persuasions should cherish that, at the end of an often contentious election cycle, we can unite peaceably to move the country forward, just as our founding fathers envisioned. Today, it’s important to respect the fact that we, as Americans, continue to have the privilege to honor our democracy by electing our President with ballots, not bullets and coups still all too common throughout much of the world.
After the contentious elections of 2000 and 2004, Edwards’s words reminded his constituents that the differences in their personal beliefs shouldn’t keep them from appreciating the phenomenon of American democracy. For Edwards, the ascendance of a political opponent to the highest office in the country (and perhaps the world) only affirmed a long tradition of American greatness.