Friday, April 30, 2010

Happy Birthday, Mr. President

Magnet # 230:  Historic Virginia Presidents

Material:  Rubber

Purchased By:  Me

The long line of Presidents of the United States kicked off on this very day back in 1789, when George Washington was inaugurated at New York City's Federal Hall.  The beloved former planter and general was met by enthusiastic crowds along the route to the inauguration site, and by even more cheering masses when he arrived.  He took the oath of office on a second story balcony as the crowd looked on.  Washington was sworn in using a Masonic Bible that dated back to 1767.  We still have this book and several Presidents have chosen to use it in their inaugurations.  He later delivered his inaugural address to the Senate and it was 1419 words, but at his second inauguration, he gave the shortest inaugural address ever - a mere 135 words.  At his request, Barbados Rum was served, but there was no inaugural ball on that day when the Presidency began.  It wouldn't be introduced until James Madison took office in 1809.

Since that day, there have been 56 inaugural ceremonies and the oath of office has been taken 72 times.  Over the years, the inauguration process has grown and changed, but some traditions have remained. The outgoing President has almost always attended the inauguration of the incoming President except, of course, when the previous one has passed away. However, there have been four noteworthy exceptions - John Adams was not at Thomas Jefferson's inauguration, nor was his son John Quincy Adams at Andrew Jackson's. Andrew Johnson stayed away from that of Ulysses Grant's and Richard Nixon avoided Gerald Ford's inauguration. Sometimes, bad blood between the two individuals or bitter feelings in general accounted for these absences. One former President who probably really wished he could have skipped his successor's inauguration was Herbert Hoover, who took the blame for the Great Depression. But he still braved the bitter crowds, showing up for Franklin D. Roosevelt's inauguration and was rewarded by having to sit mute as he was one again criticized and his policies attacked before the nation.  Roosevelt had a great many positive attributes for which the country should be grateful - unfortunately, forgiveness wasn't always among them. 

Another inaugural tradition is that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court almost always administers the Oath of Office. On two occasions, this has been a former President, William Taft, the only President who has also been Chief Justice. He swore in Calvin Coolidge for his second term in office as well as Herbert Hoover and he is the only former President who has sworn in subsequent Presidents. Calvin Coolidge notably broke from tradition when he had his father, a notary public and Justice of the Peace, swear him in. As Vice-President, Coolidge had been visiting his family in Vermont when he learned of Warren Harding's sudden death and needed to be sworn in. This was the only time the Oath of Office has not been administered by a judge. Lyndon Johnson was the only President to be sworn in by a woman, U.S. District Court Judge Sarah Hughes, who performed the ceremony on Air Force One after Kennedy's assassination. The President has almost always placed his hand on the Bible while taking the oath, often open to a passage of his choice. We know of several times this has changed.  John Quincy Adams was sworn in with a book of U.S. law.  Also, when Vice-Presidents Chester Arthur and Theodore Roosevelt were sworn in after their respective Presidents were assassinated, they did not use a Bible.  Perhaps there was so much confusion at both times, it was simply forgotten.  This must have also been the case with Lyndon Johnson, when he was forced to use a missal rather than a Bible on Air Force One.

The office of the President is another creation of the United States that has worked so well it has been utilized by a considerable amount of other nations.  Ideally, it has allowed leaders to be voted in by the people based on their merit, not their birthright.  Of course, as we all know, this has not always been the case.  Truly, the history of the President of the United States has been a mixed bag, with examples ranging from men of vastly superior intellect and character to those who are questionably competent.  But we have had some great Presidents in our country's past, beginning on that April day in 1789, and I really hope there are more great ones in our future.

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