By MARSHA MERCER
The Constitution requires only the 35-word oath of office.
All the rest in our presidential inaugurations – the address, poetry, prayers, marching bands and balls -- is gravy.
Before we get swept up in the pomp and pageantry – lobster and bison luncheon in the U.S. Capitol! Native Americans in their regalia! Unicyclists from Maine! -- let’s take a moment to remember that George Washington was first in the hearts of his countrymen and first to invent a presidential inauguration.
The father of our country had to decide not only what to wear and what to say but how big the buttons on his coat should be and whether to say anything at all. He had to decide where he wanted to stay. The nation’s capital and first inauguration were then in New York, a long way from Mount Vernon.
Washington was aware he was setting precedent, and, although not everything he did stuck, it’s instructive to see where we started.
In the weeks before his swearing in as the first president on April 30, 1789, Washington wrote letters (yes, by hand) praising the locally made “cloth and buttons” his friend and future Secretary of War Henry Knox had sent him and asked Knox for “six more of the large (engraved) button to trim the coat in the manner I wish it to be.”
He was determined to stay only in “hired rooms” or inns, and not in private homes when he made the trip. “I am not desirous of being placed early in a situation for entertaining,” he wrote James Madison.
Washington worried about the “oceans of difficulties” awaiting him as the first Congress had failed to begin its business, and he lamented his lack of political skill. In fact, Washington’s war service had given him excellent political skills, says Jim Zeender, a long-time registrar in the Exhibits Division of the National Archives, whose excellent blog posts about early letters of the founders I draw from here. Zeender’s posts can be found on the National Archives’ Prologue: Pieces of History blog.
The Library of Congress and Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies also have robust web pages on inaugurations.
In 1789, Washington took the oath on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street before a joint session of Congress and addressed the crowd below: “Fellow citizens of the Senate and House of Representatives, among the vicissitudes incident to life no event could have filled me with greater anxieties” than the notification of his election as president. His flowery speech continued for 1,400 words.
And later that day, another tradition – of critiquing the president’s inaugural performance -- was born.
U.S. Sen. William Maclay of Pennsylvania wrote in his diary that Washington “read off his address in the plainest manner, without even taking his eyes from the paper, for I felt hurt that he was not first in everything. He was dressed in deep brown, with metal buttons, with an eagle on them, white stockings, a bag, and sword.”
For his second inauguration in Philadelphia, Washington wore a black velvet suit with black stockings. He was weary and his speech was just 135 words. Maclay had lost his re-election bid, so we don’t have his review.
Inaugurations have taken place in various locations. The first in the new capital city of Washington was Thomas Jefferson’s second inauguration in 1801. He walked over from his boarding house.
Social butterfly Dolley Madison came up with the first inaugural ball in 1809, but her husband the president was not impressed. “I’d rather be in bed,” James Madison reportedly confided.
We’ve now come to the 57th inauguration. Expectations are low for President Barack Obama’s second act.
Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse likened second inaugurations to the renewal of wedding vows – “the ceremony might be great, but you can’t ignore what you already know about the groom: He snores, he sniffles and he forgot to pay the electric bill last month.”
While almost nothing could equal the pure joy and excitement of four years ago, this inauguration is a time to look at our history and our future with hope.
An inauguration gives us a day to celebrate us. Let’s enjoy it. We don’t need George Washington’s big eagle buttons. We have apps.
© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.