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Explore Presidential Inaugurations with Library of Congress Primary Sources

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The inauguration of the president of the United States is an event rich with tradition, pomp, and pageantry. It is a time for the peaceful transition of power and an opportunity for the president to outline the goals for the next four years. It is a chance for the nation to celebrate with parades and formal balls. It is a moment of excitement before the work of running the country begins.

Looking for ideas on how to help students understand this important event? These Library of Congress blog posts provide links to resources on presidential inaugurations and the activities that surround them.

From David Rankin Barbee's, "Inaugural Balls of the Past," in the Inaugural Program, Inauguration. Franklin D. Roosevelt President of the United States. John N. Garner Vice President of the United States. March 4, 1933
From David Rankin Barbee’s, “Inaugural Balls of the Past,” in the Inaugural Program, Inauguration. March 4, 1933

Washington's reception by the ladies, on passing the bridge at Trenton, N.J. April 1789, on his way to New York to be inaugurated first president of the United States. John Jacob Hipp, 1897
Washington’s reception … on his way to New York to be inaugurated first president of the United States.  1897

Beyond the Oath: Presidential Inaugurations Past to Present in Library of Congress Primary Sources notes how presidential inaugurations have evolved from the taking of a simple oath provided in the Constitution to major events that start several days before and may go on for days after the actual inauguration of the president. Also, learn more about the first presidential inauguration and how George Washington helped shape the ways in which the presidents since his time have taken the oath of office.

Taking a Closer Look at Presidential Inaugurations: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address explores one of the most widely studied inaugural addresses, one made at the end of a war that bitterly divided the nation. Want to learn more about Lincoln’s second inauguration? Michelle Krowl’s post, Here Comes the Sun: Seeing Omens in the Weather at Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inauguration, discusses the weather on that auspicious day. Want to see what it actually looked like on that day? There are images from that day available online.

Many inaugurations include the recitation of a poem written for the day. The Library’s Poetry and Literature Center blog, From the Catbird Seat, has highlighted inaugural poems in several posts. Learn about the poetry of Robert Frost and Maya Angelou as well as the more recent poetry of Richard Blanco.

Do your students know that presidential inaugurations took place in March until the 20th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified? Learn more about this amendment and about the last inauguration that took place before the 20th amendment was enacted.

Inaugural balls are another component of presidential inaugurations. Learn more about the gowns worn at inaugural balls and the origin of the term “First Lady.”

Make sure to explore the Library’s updated Inauguration presentation for teachers and the Library’s web guide to inaugurations, “I Do Solemnly Swear…” Also of interest is the exhibition, “I Do Solemnly Swear: Inaugural Materials from the Collections of the Library of Congress,” which includes artifacts from eighteen presidential inaugurations.

Looking for activity suggestions? You might try these:

  • Ask your students how they would modify the inaugural events if they were president.
  • Students can examine the image of an 1897 painting of Washington’s inaugural. Make sure they know the date of the inauguration and then ask if they think that Washington’s inaugural celebration was as the artist depicted it?
  • Students can compare the upcoming inauguration to the images of Lincoln’s second inauguration. What is similar and what is different?
  • Encourage students to write a poem or song for the presidential inauguration.
  • Discuss the reasons why the inauguration was moved from March to January. Do your students agree with the change? Why or why not?

How will you and your students document the upcoming inauguration? Let us know in the comments.


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