On March 4, 1793, George Washington was inaugurated for the second time.
Inaugural ceremonies today are huge events. Dignitaries stand and sit in the cold for hours, and the process can take hours. William Henry Harrison has the record for the longest speech – 8,500 words, which took about 90 minutes to deliver. Harrison did it without coat and hat, got sick, and died a few weeks later.
George Washington’s second inaugural, by contrast, was the shortest – just 135 words.
Washington’s speech was given in March. Today, inaugurations take place in January. The change occurred because experience taught that once the next president had been elected, the “lame duck” president – on his way out – was an ineffective administrator. To reduce the time for this, with the passing of the 20th Amendment in 1937, the date was moved to January 20, where it remains.
The most important part of a presidential inauguration occurs when power transfers from one president to the next. The United States has managed to handle this transition peacefully, throughout its history. Other countries have been less fortunate. The period when one leader is on his way out, but the next hasn’t arrived yet, is a perfect time for coups, revolutions, and assassinations. Until the United States proved otherwise, few political thinkers believed that democracies were capability of stability. Whether they will have the last word remains to be seen. But, for the most part, the American regime has shown great stability, starting with the example set by George Washington, before, during, and after his presidency. In his second inaugural address, he simply asked that he be held accountable for his actions as president. And then he sat down. Such humility might be welcome again today in our leaders.
- Have you ever bought or sold a major item like a car? How did it feel to turn over the keys?
- Why do you think inaugural addresses have become so long?
- What do you think the purpose of such ceremonies is? What role do you think things like this play in cementing together the country? What other ceremonial occasions perform this function? What do you think would happen if they no longer occurred?