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The inauguration of President Jimmy Carter took place on January 20, 1977. Carter was sworn-in on the East Portico of the United States Capitol Building.

Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

The election of Jimmy Carter in 1976 brought deep political and cultural change to the American presidency. A southern Baptist with strong evangelical beliefs, Carter ran as a Washington outsider, promising to restore integrity to the presidency and trust in the federal government. This was evident in the theme of President Carter’s Inauguration, “A New Spirit, A New Commitment, A New America.” President-elect Carter was ready to start his duties and began preparing for the presidency by receiving fifteen-minute intelligence briefings every morning. He was also eager to begin a new tradition of signing the guest book at the president’s guest residence, the Blair House. Since Carter every President-elect has signed the guest book prior to inauguration as Commander-in-Chief. He began this tradition on December 9, 1976, a little over a month before he took office.1

President-elect Carter spent most of his days before the inauguration at his home in Plains, Georgia. He and his family flew to Washington, D.C. on the eve of his inauguration. President-elect Carter and his family stayed overnight at Blair House, making him the first president-elect to do so before his inauguration.2 On January 20, 1977, Jimmy Carter spent the morning of his inauguration at Blair House eating scrambled eggs for breakfast with his family.3 Shortly afterwards he attended services at First Baptist Church on Sixteenth and O Streets Northwest. Vice President-Elect Walter Mondale and his family accompanied Carter as well. Afterwards the Carter family returned to Blair House before embarking on the traditional pre-inauguration ceremony visit to the White House.

This photograph of President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter was taken on January 20, 1977. After the swearing-in ceremony the Carters elected to walk back to the White House along Pennsylvania Avenue.

Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

President Gerald Ford and First Lady Betty Ford greeted the Carters under the North Portico of the White House. They spent time chatting with each other, casually sipping coffee in the Blue Room.4 Shortly afterwards, President Ford and President-elect Carter rode together to the Capitol, a tradition that dates back to 1837 when Andrew Jackson accompanied his presidential successor, Martin Van Buren.

It was a cold, icy day as Washington awaited the inauguration ceremony for President-elect Carter.5 He was the thirty-ninth president sworn-in to office.6 Rosalynn Carter held the family bible that President Carter used during his ceremonies. President Carter was the first president to use a nickname during the swearing in ceremonies, using “Jimmy” instead of “James.”7 His inaugural address was short, under fifteen minutes, and conveyed the message that President Carter was hoping to lead in a serious but informal manner.8

This peanut-shaped float passed by President Carter’s reviewing stand during the Inaugural Parade. The float’s theme referred to President Carter and his family’s ties to peanut farming in Georgia.

Library of Congress

The celebrations continued as the Inaugural Parade travelled down Pennsylvania Avenue. Instead of riding in the presidential limousine, President Carter decided to walk the mile and a half from the Capitol to the White House. He was joined by First Lady Rosalynn Carter and their nine year-old daughter Amy. This was the first time a president walked the pavement of Pennsylvania Avenue after the inauguration ceremony. President Carter’s Inaugural Parade walk demonstrated his “desire to make the president available for all citizens and to breathe new life into the presidency.”9 The decision to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue was made by President Carter himself several weeks before the ceremony. Carter wrote in his diary that by walking during the inaugural parade he wished to convey his “confidence in…in the people of our country” and “a reduction in the imperial status of the president and his family.”10

The new First Family watched the Inaugural Parade from the stand built by a local contractor, Skinker and Garrett, Inc. of Washington, D.C.11 The parade’s highlighted float echoed the theme of the inauguration, a new America. The float featured the letters “USA,” created in material that reflected the faces of the parade watchers, hoping to spark the feeling of a new American spirit.12 Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken also appeared in the parade. One of the more exciting floats was that of a peanut, honoring President Carter’s ties to peanut farming in his home state of Georgia.13

President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter dancing at the Inaugural Ball on January 20, 1977.

Library of Congress

The transition into living at the White House went well for the Carter family, although they faced some surprises. The Carter family did not bring many possessions to the White House. They brought their clothes, books, papers and only a few treasured belongings. The Carters wanted to keep their house in Georgia running as usual, and therefore decided not to bring larger items to their new home in Washington. President Carter also soon discovered that the president is responsible for paying for his own meals. Carter wrote in his diary, “[t]he meals in general have been superb. The only shock was that for the first ten days our food bill in the White House was six hundred dollars… We quickly discovered that the president himself pays for all personal meals, gifts and travel—for himself and for other family members as well.”14

Carter frequently spoke of his desire to mend the president’s relationship with the American people and restore the public’s trust in government. He began working towards this promise on Inauguration Day, walking down Pennsylvania Avenue and greeting attendees; this tradition remains to this day.15 President Carter also began another presidential tradition by staying at the Blair House prior to his inauguration. By doing so, President Carter created a new relationship between the Blair House and the president-elect. President Carter promised a new start and to bring change to the American presidency, which transformed not only the president’s relation to the Blair House but also the inaugural celebrations themselves.

President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter wave to their guests at the inaugural ball on January 20, 1977.

Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

This article was originally published January 13, 2017

Footnotes & Resources

1 Blair House Guest Book, http://www.blairhouse.org/history/blair-house-guest-book

2 William Seale, Blair House: The President’s Guest House, White House Historical Association, 2008, 447-448.

3 Edward Walsh, “The First Day…: ‘Just About a Perfect Day,” Washington Post, January 21st, 1977. A1 (A19).

4 Ibid.

5 Shelly McKenzie, “A History of Presidential Inaugural Celebrations and Events of Public Expression at the White House and President’s Park.” National Park Service Office of White House Liaison, July 1999.

6 Ibid.

7 Haynes Johnson, “Carter Is Sworn In as President, Asks ‘Fresh Faith in Old Dream,” Washington Post, January 21st, 1977. A1.

8 Seale, The President’s House: A History, 447.

9 Ibid.

10 Jimmy Carter, White House Diary Jimmy Carter. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. p. 10.

11 “Back at the Same Old Stand,” Washington Post, January 20, 1977. 23.

12 “Jan. 20, 1877: Inaugural Ceremonies for Jimmy Carter,” Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ifmaoLJTNrk

13 McKenzie, “A History of Presidential Inaugural Celebrations and Events of Public Expression at the White House and President’s Park,” July 1999.

14 Carter, White House Diary Jimmy Carter, 10.

15 All presidents since Jimmy Carter have participated by walking in the parade route except for President Ronald Reagan.

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