President-elect Joe Biden will become the country’s 46th president on Wednesday under exceptionally tight security, protected by more than 20,000 National Guard troops two weeks after rioters took over the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the presidential election.
But the danger posed by the continuing coronavirus pandemic will not stop Wednesday’s ceremony, 232 years after President George Washington took the first oath of office on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City. Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be sworn in on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol at noon, Biden will give an inaugural address and an abridged ceremony will go forward with prayers, Lady Gaga signing the national anthem, a musical performance by Jennifer Lopez and a poetry reading from the country’s youth poet laureate, Amanda Gorman.
Biden’s inauguration follows others that occurred as the country faced a crisis. Abraham Lincoln assumed the presidency in 1861, appealing to the country’s better angels just a month before it plunged into civil war. Four years later Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, was sworn in on April 15, 1865, 11 days before Lincoln’s assassin was tracked down and killed.
Fifty-two years later, on the eve of the U.S. entrance into World War I, Woodrow Wilson sounded a “warlike note” in his second inaugural address, according to The Washington Times. The newspaper’s reporter wrote in 1917 that Wilson was “again inaugurated President of the United States today under circumstances without parallel within the memory of the present generation.”
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Now as the country prepares for the 59th inaugural ceremony under extraordinary circumstances, here’s a look at some of the traditions it will incorporate.
Swearing-in on January 20
Washington’s inauguration took place on April 30, 1789, in New York City. Subsequent inaugurations (except in cases of deaths) were held on March 4, as set by the U.S. Constitution, to allow time for the votes to be counted and newly elected politicians to reach the capital.
The date was moved for Roosevelt’s second inauguration in 1937, as a part of the 20th Amendment. It set the end of the terms of president and vice president at noon of Jan. 20.
Oath of office
The inauguration’s one requirement, the oath of office, is spelled out in Article II of the Constitution:
“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.”
John Adams’ inauguration was the first at which the chief justice of the United States, at the time Oliver Ellsworth, administered the oath of office.
A Bible or not
Washington kissed the Bible after his oath, a precedent broken by Franklin Pierce in 1853. Pierce placed his left hand on it instead, and he affirmed rather than swore the oath. Theodore Roosevelt was the only president who did not use a Bible. He was sworn in at the Buffalo, New York, home of his friend Ansley Wilcox in 1901 after President William McKinley was assassinated.
President Barack Obama used two Bibles: ones owned by Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.
Biden is expected to take the presidential oath on the same family Bible he has used in the past, one that has been in the Biden family since 1893, five inches thick with a Celtic cross on the cover.
Who Will Attend?
President Donald Trump, in a break with many of his predecessors, will not. He is expected to leave Washington, D.C., the morning of Jan. 20. The Associated Press reports.
Vice President Mike Pence will be there.
Trump is not the first president to skip his successor’s swearing in. Three have: John Adams in 1801, John Quincy Adams in 1829 and Andrew Johnson in 1869. The first Adams left the capital early the morning of the inauguration, and never indicated why. The second Adams, his son, did not invited his successor, Andrew Jackson, to the White House, which he left the day before the inauguration. Johnson, who disliked his successor Ulysses S. Grant, spent the morning signed legislation.
Inauguration at the Capitol
That first goes to Thomas Jefferson in 1801 in what was then the Senate chamber. James Monroe was the first to take the oath outside, 16 years later in 1817.
Washington’s second in 1793 was the shortest at 135 words. The longest was given by William Harrison in 1841 at 10,000 words. He began his address, broke off to take the oath of office, and then continued with his speech. A month later, he died, either of pneumonia or typhoid.
The theme of Biden’s inauguration is “America United.”
Some memorable lines
Lincoln’s second inaugural address, delivered in 1865 only about a month before he was assassinated, included these lines of reconciliation: "With 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 nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural address in 1933, delivered as the country confronted the Great Depression and only eight years before the United States would enter the World War II, included another famous line: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
In 1961 John F. Kennedy urged the country: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.”
And Ronald Reagan said in 1981: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”