Inauguration Day in U.S. History: Rituals of Political Unity and Recognition of Tough Tasks Ahead

Joe Biden comes to office without massive crowds witnessing his swearing-in due to security concerns and the covid-19 pandemic. He arrives at the White House with a national mandate to seek bipartisan action by Congress during great crises — a coronavirus that has killed 400,000 Americans and put the country into deep recession; bitter partisan divisions, an insurrection, impeachment and “breach of faith” on the part of the previous president.

Yet he enters with low expectations that he’ll be able to bridge the partisan divide, and accomplish much legislatively because of his party’s narrow margin in the 117th Congress, 50-50 in the Senate and a 10 seat-margin in the House (with three vacancies). Vice President Kamala Harris has to preside over the Senate more than most veeps in order to break tie votes.

Americans can draw strength from history — the fact that we’ve been through much tougher times — and the words of previous presidents.

Gerald Ford’s first speech as president on August 9, 1974 after the resignation of Richard Nixon declared “our long national nightmare is over.”

As I wrote two years ago, George Washington Warned Against Hyper-partisanship. He feared that factions and hyper-partisanship among political parties would make America vulnerable to the agenda of foreign powers, destroy the central government by stalemate and an inability to accomplish anything for the good of the nation, for fear of giving “the other party” credit. Hyper-partisanship would lead to the “ruins of public liberty,” our first president said, and open the door to an authoritarian who will defy constitutional restraints on power, declare extra-level emergency powers and ignore the rule of law. His warning about “cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men” utilizing hyper-partisanship to usurp the reigns of government for their own purposes definitely needs to be heard at this time.

The conclusions of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address in 1861 and second inaugural address in 1865 are worthy of quotation: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature,” he said in his first inaugural.

And at the end of his second inaugural address, he pledged 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 lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Biden’s Speech Called for an End to ‘This Uncivil War’

Biden and Harris were sworn in with members of the opposition party — Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell, Republican leaders of the House and Senate, looking on, offering their congratulations and cordial assent. Biden’s inaugural address is worth reading by friend and foe alike. It is now on the new “Democracy has prevailed” over internal threats, he declared, but acknowledged the victory is by no means final. “Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we’re all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization have long torn us apart. The battle is perennial and victory is never assured…”

Echoing Lincoln, Biden said, “History, faith and reason show the way, the way of unity. We can see each other not as adversaries, but as neighbors. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature. For without unity, there is no peace — only bitterness and fury. No progress — only exhausting outrage. No nation — only a state of chaos…”

“Many centuries ago, St. Augustine, a saint in my church, wrote that a people were a multitude defined by the common objects of their love. Defined by the common objects of their love. What are the common objects we as Americans love, that define us as Americans? I think we know. Opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor and, yes, the truth.

“We must end this uncivil war, that pits red against blue, rural vs. urban, conservative vs. liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts. If we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes, if just for a moment. Because here’s the thing about life: There’s no accounting for what fate will deal you. There are some days when we need a hand. There are other days when we’re called on to lend one. That’s how we must be with one another. That’s what we do for one another. And if we are this way, our country will be stronger, more prosperous, more ready for the future.

“My fellow Americans, in the work ahead of us, we will need each other. We will need all our strength to persevere through this dark winter.”

Full text.

Peaceful Transfer of Power from Trump to Biden?

Inauguration Day is traditionally the day when Democrats and Republicans put aside partisan differences and participate in the peaceful transfer of power in American democracy, celebrating respect for due process of law and the rightful choice of the American people in the previous November’s election. Even candidates who won the popular vote but painfully lost the electoral college, most notably Vice President Al Gore in 2000, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016, conceded the election, stood on the same inaugural platform as the certified winner and signaled to their supporters to accept the result.

Donald Trump declined to attend the inauguration, declined to participate in a peaceful transfer of power or give Biden and Harris his well-wishes. President Biden did say that Trump left him a “very gracious” note, as per tradition.

Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, in a joint appearance, urged unity, a peaceful transition of power and honored Joe Biden.

Trump’s supporters would do well to give Biden at least some benefit of the doubt for a period of time out of their own self-interest. If he does everything wrong, all Americans LOSE. Students of history know that few if any leaders are all bad. We all have to hope that the president is right and those of us who have been his critics have been wrong, for our own sakes, for the sake of our nation. Despite the bitter partisanship of the Trump years, a NYT editorial in fall 2020 noted the common ground that the president and the (partially) Democratic Congress found.

The cartoonist Herblock on Richard Nixon’s second inauguration day in 1973 gave him a “clean shave” — no longer portrayed him as sinister, with shifty eyes, crooked-looking “five o’clock shadow.” It didn’t last, of course. Within six months, eye-deep in the Watergate scandal, Nixon grew a new “five o’clock shadow,’ from Herblock’s point of view. But the “clean shave exercise,” offering an olive branch to those we disagree with politically, is an important tradition.

Witty cynics have described the ritual of marriage as “the triumph of hope over experience.” The ritual of inauguration day might also be described as “the triumph of hope over experience.” Most presidencies in my lifetime have started out with high hopes, and ended in disappointment, if not downright disillusionment.

Low expectations for Joe Biden might actually work in his favor in the long run. The people might be pleasantly surprised by his leadership.

On this historic day, commentators always recall previous inaugurals. Among them:

  • President William Henry Harrison in 1841 gave a 8000 word-inaugural address, which lasted one hour and 45 minutes. He wore no hat, no overcoat, caught pneumonia, and died a month later — the nation’s shortest presidency.
  • President Franklin Pierce, in 1853, gave an inaugural address of 3,319 words completely from memory — no notes whatsoever. This was the chief accomplishment of his presidency. He had no other significant accomplishments.

Drill Deeper:

Boston College Historian Heather Cox Richardson’s “Letter from an American” for January 20, 2021.

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