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Setting the Stage

Today, U.S. presidential inaugurations are almost routine. They are regularly scheduled every four years and take place on the same date.1 Every president takes a thirty-five-word oath required by the Constitution.2 No two presidential inaugurations have been exactly alike. Typically, inaugurations include parades, speeches, fireworks, and parties. Installing the President into office is a demonstration of the peaceful transfer of power from one democratically-elected president to another. Despite political views and party affiliations, the inauguration is viewed as an important public occasion celebrating the basic values that unite the American people.

President Abraham Lincolnís second inauguration, on March 4, 1865, began wet and windy. After several days of rain, mud was as deep as ten inches in the streets of Washington, DC. Delegates and visitors from all parts of the country traveled to the capital city, all accommodations were full to overflowing. A huge crowd gathered at the east front of the Capitol for the inaugural ceremony. At noon, the presidential party stepped onto a specially erected platform as loud applause arose and bands began to play.

Lincolnís second inaugural address at 703 words was the shortest and perhaps best-remembered inaugural address in U.S. history. Employing soaring eloquence, Lincoln concluded, ďWith malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nationís wounds; Ö to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.Ē Lincoln then took the oath of office and kissed the Bible, as the crowd cheered, a barrage of artillery boomed. Teachers may want to incorporate Lincolnís second inaugural address into this lesson.

This Inauguration Day was vastly different from that of Lincolnís first term when, on March 4, 1861, people waited for comforting words from the president as tensions escalated between North and South and the nation prepared for civil war. Four years later, with Lincolnís decisive defeat of Democrat George McClellan for a second term, the Civil War neared its conclusion; victory clearly in sight for the North. That evening, the Lincolns hosted a grand reception in the East Room of the White House. Over 2,000 people, including invited guests and members of the public, managed to get inside, but many others were turned away. The inaugural ball was held two evenings later, on March 6, 1865. The ball provided a moment of euphoria amidst the tribulations of a gruesome and exhausting war of nearly four years.

1 The first presidential inauguration, for George Washington, was held on April 30, 1789 in New York City, the countryís first capital. In 1792, Congress passed legislation making March 4 the official inauguration day. This was ratified in 1804 in the 12th Amendment to the Constitution. The date remained March 4 until 1933, when the 20th Amendment changed the official beginning of a newly elected presidentís term to January 20. This is done to shorten the length of time that an outgoing president would serve between the election and the inauguration of his successor.

2 The Presidential oath of office is Article II, Section 1 of the United States Constitution. It reads: "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."



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