Donald Trump might be having trouble getting entertainers to perform at his inaugural ball, but there is no reason to doubt that his inauguration on Friday will be as big of a show as his campaign has been.
In 2009, 37.7 million Americans watched President Barack Obama take the oath. While Trump’s rise to the presidency is arguably less historic, everything about Trump is like a reality TV show and attracts big audiences and a lot of commentary worldwide. So it is very possible that the size of Trumps audience on Friday will exceed Obama’s.
The U.S. Constitution says very little about the transfer of power from one administration to the next, dictating only the oath that the incoming president must take. Over time, the presidential inauguration has become steeped in tradition, evolving from a simple ceremony to parades and grand balls.
Transition of Power
Donald Trump will become the 45th President of the United States at high noon on January 20, 2017. The date and time are set pursuant to the 20th Amendment, which states: “The terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January… and the terms of their successors shall then begin.”
Prior to the 20th Amendment, the transition of power occurred on March 4. The extra time was needed to count votes and for members of the incoming administration and Congressional delegation to settle their affairs and travel to Washington, D.C. Once technology improved, Congress sought to shorten the length of the “lame duck session” in which the departing administration has little power to advance its initiatives. On January 23, 1933, the states ratified the amendment.
The Presidential Oath
Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution sets forth the oath the president takes before assuming the responsibilities of the nation’s highest office. It states: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
President George Washington placed his hand on a Bible when reciting the oath. Nearly all future presidents have carried on this tradition, often selecting a family Bible. The presidential oath is typically administered by the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The inaugural address is the incoming president’s opportunity to share his vision for the country. George Washington spoke only a few words after being sworn into office. In his address, Washington referenced his commitment to the public good and stated that he would decline to be paid a salary.
William Henry Harrison made history when speaking for nearly two hours. However, he died one month later from pneumonia. Other inaugural addresses were shorter and more memorable. In the midst of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt famously stated: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In 1961, John F. Kennedy issued a challenge to the public: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
The first presidential inaugurations paled in comparison to the modern celebrations, which last for several days. In 1805, Thomas Jefferson traveled on horseback from the Capitol to the White House, accompanied by navy yard mechanics and music performed by the Marine Band. The procession set the groundwork for the first official parade, which was held when James Madison was inaugurated in 1809. James and Dolly Madison also made history by attending the first inaugural ball, tickets for which cost four dollars.
In his effort to “shake up” Washington, Donald Trump is likely to put his own spin on the inauguration festivities. He already suspended the tradition of the Presidential inaugural medal by becoming the first President since William McKinley not to issue one. Who knows what else he will do on Friday?
Donald Scarinci is a managing partner at Lyndhurst, N.J. based law firm Scarinci Hollenbeck. He is also the editor of the Constitutional Law Reporter and Government and Law blogs.