Historically, March 4 is a day for beginning. In 1789, it was the day the federal government first convened under the US Constitution. From that date through 1933, it was the day when presidents–from George Washington through FDR–were inaugurated. Then, pageantry, ritual, excitement, and uncertainty ruled the capital, combining in astonishing scenes richly documented in newspapers, eyewitness accounts, sketchbooks, albumen prints, and later celluloid.
Here is just one such image by way of tribute to our national birthdays past: a magnificent panoramic view of the Capitol on the inauguration of Theodore Roosevelt on March 4, 1905. Please click on the image for a much enlarged view.
Wilson’s swearing-in marked an unlooked-for turn in American politics. As an intellectual, a Democrat, and a Southerner, he promised to introduce a national tone quite different than what the US had been used to under his Republican predecessor, William Taft. Wilson’s election was a heady coup for the Democrats, whose victory owed much to divisions within the Republican Party, which had split apart into conservative and progressive wings, aligned around Taft and Theodore Roosevelt respectively.
Wilson, who strove to present himself as a reformer and people’s champion, understood the value of publicity. Preparations for his inaugural were elaborate and included a kind of triumphal procession toward Washington beginning from his birthplace in Staunton, Virginia. Every aspect of the undertaking was heavily publicized, including the stringing of electric lights along Pennsylvania Avenue, which was breathtakingly modern at the time.
There was just one complication Wilson hadn’t given much thought to. His idea of political progress didn’t include the ladies, who he believed shouldn’t vote, lest they become “unsexed” and manly. So, for months, mainly beyond his consciousness, a feminine maelstrom of discontent had been brewing.
A young college graduate named Alice Paul and her fellow activists were intent on organizing a vast suffrage parade, to take place in the capital on March 3, the day before Wilson’s inauguration, stealing his thunder and symbolically following the same route to power as he.
After three months of frantic planning, Paul and her committee had raised $14,908.06 in funds (at a time when the average yearly wage was $621), mobilized thousands of like-minded women all over the country, and laid the groundwork for a parade with floats, delegations, and an allegorical pageant to be performed on the steps of the Treasury Building.
Women from all over donned protest garb and walked, rode, and sailed to take part in the great Woman Suffrage Parade. There were delegations from Europe, marchers from places like Chicago, Oklahoma, New York, and Ohio, and women from all walks of life. They bore colorful banners and distributed lavishly expensive programs trumpeting the day’s official proceedings.
In the hours before the commencement of the parade, the capital’s streets became choked with people, as skeptical men and more than 5,000 female demonstrators and their allies arrived.
Police were unprepared to deal with the dense masses of spectators and protestors. Authorities viewed the effort dismissively. They had not planned to clear the streets, imagining that the sidewalks would suffice for a ladies’ parade. The streetcars were still running, as pandemonium brewed.
Finally, the streets were cleared and the parade began. The suffragettes marched several blocks unimpeded, but gradually men began surging into the street, making it almost impossible for the women to pass. The mood turned ugly and openly insulting. Marchers struggled to get past the hecklers, their path reduced to a single file. The men were emboldened by the police, who refused to protect the marchers and instead joined in their humiliation. Helen Keller, who was among the marchers, found the experience profoundly enervating and exhausting. Nearly 100 of the marchers were hospitalized.
The chief of police, realizing too late how he had miscalculated, called on Secretary of War Harold Stimson to send out an infantry regiment to restore order and control the crowd. In the wake of the Congressional inquiries that followed, that police chief would lose his job.
Wilson’s arrival in town was barely noticed that day. His inauguration, though orderly, was eclipsed by the more truly electrifying Suffrage Parade. The bold strategies of Alice Paul and her sisters succeeded brilliantly, breathing new life into women’s quest for the vote, a goal they would finally achieve in 1920.
Images courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The American Revolution was a revolt against “kingly power,” that, upon succeeding, evolved into a gamble that ordinary people could rule themselves without a monarch. The republican government the Framers devised nonetheless featured a novel office—that of chief executive—who, being the choice of the populace, would function as the nation’s symbolic head for four years’ time. Without some such “people’s sovereign,” the Federalists believed, the new government would have trouble securing the affections and loyalty of the citizenry. The ritual of the inauguration has taken shape around preoccupations like these.
Relative to the pomp surrounding British monarchical rituals, for instance, American inaugurals are low ceremonies indeed. Since John Adams’s early disastrous experiments in aping the British monarchy, presidents and their families have avoided ostentatious costumes or trappings offensive to democratic sensibilities. Officials take the oath of office wearing ordinary street clothes, allowing the “majesty of the people” to take center stage.
The preference has been strong for an open-air ceremony. George Washington set the tone in 1789 with his swearing-in on the balcony of Federal Hall (then the seat of Congress) in New York City. Though harsh weather has sometimes forced inaugurals inside, their location has generally been selected to allow them to be witnessed by largest possible number of people.
Over time, the inaugural has evolved into a full and appropriately expressive ritual, especially through the device of the inauguration poem (a custom begun and carried on mainly by Democratic presidents) and the performance of American song. In the right hands, the inaugural’s simple components can be coaxed into a whole of considerable beauty and eloquence, as was certainly the case with the inaugural last Monday.
The ceremony was beautifully orchestrated, planned with an understanding of how its elements could combine. From invocation to closing prayer, Obama’s second inaugural presented an aesthetic and patriotic vision of the American essence, receiving its purest expression during James Taylor’s simple rendition of ‘America the Beautiful’ on acoustic guitar. At the same time, several complex political messages were effectively conveyed.
1. Ours is an inclusive, multiracial republic.
Visually and verbally, the inaugural moved beyond tokenism to demonstrate the diverse and inclusive character of the US today. The crowd gathered on the Mall, as well as all those with an official part in the proceedings, showed the fruits of the country’s long struggle to make good on its egalitarian principles and dreams. The reality of integration and inclusion was embodied in the faces of the military, in the diverse complexion of officialdom, and in all those clergy, singers, poets, musicians, and orators, who were called on to inspire, entertain, instruct, bless, and thrill us that day.
Coinciding with Martin Luther King Day, the inaugural paid homage to the nation’s centuries-long quest for civil equality, encompassing the struggle to end slavery, extend the franchise, welcome the immigrant, and end archaic practices that are discriminatory. Progress toward these goals, though incomplete and painfully achieved, is evident, and our maturity as a pluralistic country was joyfully ratified on Inauguration Day.
2. Religion is central to American civic life, but not in the way Christian conservatives imagine.
Religious sentiment (of a peculiarly American kind) suffused the inaugural proceedings. Its historic role in inspiring Americans to preserve and strengthen the Union and to persevere in the face of injustice was humbly acknowledged. In the ceremony, religion figured as a fountain that Americans must continue to draw on as they seek to discern the right and the true.
Myrlie Evers-Williams somber invocation and Reverend Luis Leon’s benediction extolled the blessings of religion as a unifying and transcendent force, binding together and uplifting the American people. Driving the point home, the multiracial Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir wowed the crowd with its rendition of the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ a Civil War-era song about militant righteousness and Union, written by northern white abolitionist Julia Ward Howe.
Was the inaugural satisfying in part because it sketched the spiritual and patriotic dimensions of the Obamas’ own deep personal faith, a faith that opponents have often assailed, belittled, and misrepresented for the sake of political gain? At the same time, the intense but inclusive spirit of the inaugural seemed a rebuke to the more narrow and divisive Christianity that social conservatives espouse.
3. The condition of the people is the President’s main concern. Maximize their security, happiness, and well-being, and national prosperity will follow.
Jeffersonian thought has been so marginalized in political discourse that commentators hardly recognize its essence today. President Obama’s repeated use of phrases and ideas from the Declaration of Independence in his speech signaled his interest in governing in a Jeffersonian vein. It’s an interesting idea, but what does it mean? For Jefferson, it meant providing a framework for the individual so that the the individual could flourish. Jefferson was not anti-government—he was the architect of many enduring and expansive national projects—but he believed chiefly in that government necessary to protect and promote a prosperous and self-realizing citizenry. When it came to big projects, Jefferson was all about innovation and efficiency.
4. The relationships born of our civic life enjoy a priority over those of corporations or the economy.
Throughout his career, President Obama has sought to reinvigorate the potent role of citizens in political life. David Brooks, though admiring the inaugural address, regretted the president had not devoted more of it to the budget, the markets, the economy, or free enterprise. We’ve grown accustomed to thinking that government must be mainly about these. But are these truly the chief interests of a republican government? Are these the interests that need protecting? American business will continue to find a way, whether the Obama administration puts its might behind that project, or not. The president believes that investment in human capital is the chief requisite to making the economy thrive. As if to underscore the point, inaugural poet Richard Blanco offered a lyrical, Whitmanesque view of American work in his spare yet impressive poem, One Today.
5. We are all citizens, and, as citizens, must fulfill certain transcendent obligations consonant with the great power reposed in us.
The best part of the president’s speech was its conclusion. Pointing to oath-taking as a unifying ritual, the President likened his oath to others we have taken, whether as schoolchildren, government officials, new citizens, or members of the military. The promises we make to our country bind us together in a way that transcends the claims of self-interest and party. The president closed with an appeal to each of us to continue to make our voices heard.
How fortunate we are that Lincoln’s presidency came just after the development of photography! Of course, by the time he first took office in 1861, certain photographic processes, notably daguerreotypes, had been around for decades. But only around mid-century did photography develop into a versatile, practical, and widely circulating medium. As a consequence, whereas photographs of Lincoln’s predecessors in the White House are scarce, Lincoln and his political contemporaries had their pictures taken many, many times. Some even became shrewd retailers of their mechanically reproduced selves.
The result, from the point of view of the present, is an opening-wide of the window onto history. Whereas details of James Buchanan‘s 1857 inauguration come down to us mainly through artistic and verbal description (there is this one blurry photograph), good photographs documenting both of Lincoln’s inaugurals survive. From 1861, for instance, there are several fine distant views of Lincoln taking the oath of office, though none of them is close enough for us to make out his great defeated rival, Senator Stephen A Douglas, who, according to historical testimony, is said to have been looking on from a seat nearby.
These photographs remind us of the immature, precarious state of the Union at the time. The great addition of the new Capitol dome was incomplete, and, even as Lincoln moved to forward to assume his elected office, the elements that made up the nation were breaking apart. Prior to March 4, 1861, when this picture was taken, seven pro-slavery states had seceded, and afterward, four more southern states would depart. On April 12th, with the firing on Fort Sumter, the nation would descend into a state of war.
The crowd gathered for the swearing-in knew that they were witnessing a momentous scene. The crowd was thick; most had furled their umbrellas; men, straining for the best possible view, mounted light poles and trees. Motionless, they strained to hear the unamplified proceedings, the camera preserving the style of their hats and clothing. Two men turn to face the camera, cannily.
The succeeding years saw a widening use of open-air photography, so that we know with some immediacy the Civil War’s corpse-strewn scenes. Photographers like Alexander Gardner (by then working for Mathew Brady) tirelessly trailed the armies, unflinchingly recording the realities of camps, hospitals, and battle-fields. By the time of Lincoln’s second inaugural, in 1865, the war was in its final months, slaves had been liberated, and the nation had become accustomed to seeing itself through the lens of photography.
This wonderful photograph by Gardner captures the look of that later crowd. Here, the people themselves, not the government nor the army, nor their most powerful representatives, are recognized as camera-worthy, as they gather on an inauguration day that is once again wet and muddy. Great coats and banners billow in the breeze, as knots of spectators stand about, chatting or strolling as they please. In time, they part to make way for the inaugural parade, in which Union regiments of both races proudly march.
Is it my imagination, or is there a touch of jubilation here, missing from the earlier proceedings? Though the war had yet to end, the prospects for the Confederacy were dwindling sharply, and Americans who had fought to keep the nation together knew that their victory was sure.
Bare-headed, Lincoln reads his message of reconciliation to a crowd radiating around him like magnetic filings, the dais overflowing with dignitaries. A miscellaneous crowd of watchers stands beneath him, studying the crowd while listening. It is a homely scene with little pageantry, suited to a federal republic that, though riddled with conflict, has endured trials to grow in confidence and power. Outside the frame, the Capitol dome has been completed, and stands triumphantly capped with the Statue of Freedom.
All images from the collections of the Library of Congress.
Click on the images for more information and larger views.