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Presidential Inaugurations

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On April 30, 1789, George Washington took the oath of office in New York City. Later he said of this new presidential role, "I walk on untrodden ground." Inauguration Day began with the sounds of ceremonial artillery and church bells ringing across New York City, our nation's first capital. At noon Washington made his way through large crowds to Federal Hall where both houses of Congress were assembled. On the second-floor balcony facing the street he was administered the oath of office by Robert R. Livingston, the Chancellor of New York, and officially became the first president of the United States.

Constitutional guidelines for inaugurations are sparse, offering only the date and the words of the oath. All else is driven by tradition. After the oath is administered the president gives an address, usually one stressing national unity.

In 1801 Thomas Jefferson was the first to be sworn in as president in Washington, D.C., the location chosen for the permanent capital. After his second inauguration in 1805 Jefferson rode on horseback from the Capitol to the President's House amid music and a spontaneous gathering of mechanics from the nearby Navy Yard – a procession that grew into today's inaugural parade.

Inaugural events, including parades, have become more elaborate over the years and have evolved into spectacular entertainments. Selection of parade participants is a traditional way for a president to make a statement about his beliefs, as Abraham Lincoln did in 1865 by inviting African Americans to march for the first time.

Presidents have celebrated in many ways since George Washington danced the minuet after his inauguration. James Madison and his wife Dolley were the guests of honor at the first official inaugural ball, held at Long's Hotel in Washington, D.C. Since that time, such activities have been broadened to include a cross-section of the American population. Receptions, balls, and other public events reflect the president’s need to include many diverse groups in the transition of power, even, at times, officially sanctioned protesters. More than a celebration of one person’s rise to power, modern inaugurations validate the republic’s democratic processes. Modern inaugural festivities reflect not only the president they honor, but also the desire of many Americans to celebrate our nation's rich history and the transfer of presidential power.