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Friday, March 4, 2011

Remembering Inauguration Day

For most of America’s history, today—March 4—marked inauguration day. When the Constitution was being drafted, an early March date seemed practical; votes in the general election were cast for electors, and those electors would have to find the time to make their way to the nation’s capital (then New York City) to choose the president.

The very first inauguration was actually April 29, 1789, when George Washington was sworn in on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street. (Federal Hall National Memorial, an old US Treasury Building, now marks the spot.) Less than a week later, Congress convened in the same building for the first time, and from that point forward March 4 was the day that power transferred. The first March 4 inaugural was in 1797, when John Adams succeeded Washington in a ceremony in Philadelphia. Thomas Jefferson was the first president inaugurated in Washington, D.C., in 1801, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the last to be sworn in on that day. In 1933, the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, shortening the lame duck period for Congress and the President and moving the President’s swearing in to January 20.

Throughout the Nineteenth Century, there were plenty of Presidents who were sworn in on dates that weren’t March 4. If inauguration day fell on a Sunday, it was usually pushed to the next day (though sometimes it was Saturday instead). Beginning with John Tyler, a number of Vice Presidents had to assume the office upon the death of the President. New Yorker Chester Arthur, Vice President under James Garfield, was sworn in September 19, 1881, at his home on Lexington Avenue before heading to DC to assume the presidency.

Among the biggest commemorations today is the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural in 1861—which was, not at all coincidentally, also the day that the Confederate Stars and Bars were adopted as the flag of the states in rebellion. You can read Lincoln’s speech here

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Read more about the presidency in New York in
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.

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