This is a guest post by Meg Steele, who works with K-12 teachers at the Library of Congress.
“Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:— ‘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.’’’ U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 1
Inaugurations have evolved from this simple oath to include a series of events that both commemorate a transition of power and engage the public. A presidential inauguration also provides teachers and students a powerful lens through which to examine the principles at the foundation of American government—the rule of law, checks and balances, republicanism. Students can also contextualize and analyze past inaugurations within their respective time periods and presidencies. The ceremonies, parades, and balls offer evidence for the roles of symbols, patriotism, and leadership in U.S. culture.
As the United States prepares for the inauguration of Barack Obama to his second term, the Library of Congress collection, “I Do Solemnly Swear…” offers dozens of primary sources from inaugurations in history and is a springboard for further exploration. Just looking at the timeline of presidents and inaugural dates invites questions and ideas for points of entry. For example, note the presidents inaugurated on a day other than March 4th or January 20th, like Chester Arthur and Calvin Coolidge. Think about what was happening when each was inaugurated; what circumstances do the primary sources reveal?
Also, at a glance, see which presidents served only one term, such as Herbert Hoover. In 1932, Hoover was defeated in a contentious campaign during the height of the Great Depression. Is there evidence of that historical context in the items from the inauguration of the winner, Franklin D. Roosevelt? What role do inaugurations play during such transitions?
Though inaugurations are carefully choreographed events (see the “arrangements” for Martin Van Buren’s), some moments and images stand out as unique; for example items from Andrew Jackson’s first inauguration depict a somber swearing in and the raucous party afterward and can engage students at the outset of a study of the Jacksonian Era. Cameras captured the iconic image of the Capitol dome under construction during Lincoln’s first inaugural. How might Americans on differing sides of the impending Civil War have viewed this symbolically?
From the oath’s simple words, presidential inaugurations—and their rituals and traditions—continue to evolve. With the effective use of primary sources, students’ understanding of their impact can grow as well.
Next week, we’ll take a close look at primary sources related to inaugural addresses. Until then, please add your ideas here: What will you do in your classroom for the 2013 inauguration? How can you tap historic inaugurations for additional lessons?