Hail to the Chief

Inaugurations We Would Have Liked to See

Contributing to the significance of Harry Truman’s 1949 inauguration is the fact that it was the first one to be broadcast live on television, but what of the previous thirty-three presidents and their official debuts as leader of the free world? We can only piece together what may have happened using ancient etchings on cave walls. (Okay, and newspaper articles. And radio). A few inaugurations we wish we could watch today:

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George Washington

This one may go without saying, but we’ll put it at the top of the list anyway. America’s first president was sworn in on April 30, 1789, at New York City’s Federal Hall, and he was determined to put his own stamp on the proceedings. Washington added the phrase “so help me God” to the oath of office, then kissed the Bible on which he was affirmed, both of which have become rituals in most inaugurations since.

James Monroe

Our esteemed fifth president’s 1817 inauguration was the first to be held out in the open, in front of his adoring public. Somewhere between five and eight thousand Monroe fans came out for the occasion, which doesn’t sound like much compared to the two to four million expected for Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Abraham Lincoln

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.” Lincoln’s 1861 inauguration focused on unity, as his parade was the first to include African-Americans, and his inaugural speech attempted to bring some measure of stability to an increasingly fractured nation. The president-elect came into office under enormous pressure, with seven Southern states threatening to secede from the Union. Still, he managed to craft what is widely considered one of the best addresses in our nation’s history—Lincoln’s words were poignant without ever losing a vital sense of urgency regarding the impending Civil War.

Lyndon Johnson

There are photographs, but no film records, of Lyndon Johnson’s swift swearing in on the day of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Two hours after the Dealey Plaza shooting, Johnson took the oath of office aboard Air Force One with a still-shaken First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy at his side. The tragic circumstances made for a highly unusual inauguration, as Johnson became the first president to be sworn in by a woman (Federal Judge Sarah Hughes), and since there was no bible on the plane, Kennedy’s Catholic missal was used for the oath instead. Johnson was not the first president to forego that tradition—a bible could not be found when Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in amid similar chaos following President William McKinley’s murder in 1901.



Images (top to bottom): George Washington, James Monroe, Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon Johnson


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