The 20th Amendment moves the start of the president’s new term from March 4 to January 20. It also provides for succession plans if the newly elected president of vice president is unable to assume his or her position.
Article II, Section 1, of the Constitution sets the terms of the president and vice president at four years. The outgoing Congress sets the start of the new government on March 4, 1789.
The first president, George Washington, is not inaugurated until April 30, 1789. Although Congress scheduled the first inauguration for March 4 of that year, it is unable to count the electoral ballots as early as anticipated. Consequently, the first inauguration is postponed to allow the president-elect time to make the trip from his home in Virginia to New York City, where the first Congress convened. During the trip, Washington is greeted with decorations, songs, poems and pageants. In New York Harbor, hundreds of ships sail out to greet him, and thousands of cheering spectators listen to bands playing, cannons booming, and church bells ringing. Washington chooses to travel on foot from the dock in New York to show that he is not a king. In Washington’s first inaugural address, he discussed his reasons for refusing a salary as president of the United States. He also includes a religious invocation as many later presidents have done during their inaugural address and added, “So help me God,” to the oath of office.
Congress passes a Presidential Succession Act that says that should both the president and vice president be unable to serve, the president pro tempore of the Senate (i.e., the person selected to preside over the Senate when the vice president is absent) would serve as president. If there was no president pro tempore of the Senate, the speaker of the House of Representatives would serve, and the line of succession would then proceed through the cabinet officers in the order their departments were created.
At his second inauguration, George Washington speaks for only a few minutes, giving a speech of only 135 words. He receives his oath from William Cushing, an associate justice of the Supreme Court who is the first in a long line of members of the court to perform the ceremony.
After serving as vice president under George Washington, John Adams wins the presidency. He becomes the first president to receive the oath of office from the chief justice of the United States, Oliver Ellsworth.
Chief Justice John Marshall administers the first executive oath of office in the new federal city in Washington, D.C. The ceremony is held in the new Senate Chamber (now the Old Supreme Court Chamber) of the partially built Capitol building. Because Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr each received 73 electoral votes, the outcome of the election of 1800 had been in doubt until late February. After 30 hours of debate and balloting in the House of Representatives, Jefferson emerges as the president and Burr, the vice president. President John Adams, who lost his bid for a second term, leaves Washington on the day of the inauguration without attending the ceremony. Jefferson begins the custom of writing to Congress to accept the inauguration and arrange the time for the ceremonies.
After Thomas Jefferson’s second inauguration, he rides on horseback from the Capitol to the president’s house surrounded by mechanics from the nearby Navy Yard and military band music playing. This procession will grow into the current inaugural parade. The parade, like most of the ceremony, often reflects the tastes of the incoming president.
Chief Justice John Marshall administers the presidential oath of office to James Madison in the Hall of the House of Representatives (now National Statuary Hall). Since then, with few exceptions, presidents have taken the oath in the House Chamber or in a place of the Capitol associated with the Congress as a whole. The vice presidential oath of office is customarily taken in the Senate Chamber, since the vice president serves as head of the Senate. President Jefferson watches Madison’s swearing-in ceremony from the audience since he no longer holds office. Madison is the first president to hold the inaugural ball on the same day as his inauguration.
Chief Justice John Marshall administers the oath of office to James Monroe in the nation’s first outdoor inauguration. Toward the end of his first inaugural address, Monroe mentions the South American countries that are struggling for independence from Europe and offers the first glimmer of what will become known as the Monroe Doctrine. The doctrine will later be defined as stating that the United States will protect the North and South American continents from European colonization. In return, the United States will not interfere with European affairs.
The inauguration of Andrew Jackson, a successful general who is known as “Old Hickory,” is held on the East Portico of the Capitol building, the first time that site has been used for a swearing in. Chief Justice John Marshall administers the oath of office. Afterward, Jackson is accompanied by a large group of citizens as he walks on Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. Many of them visit the Executive Mansion that day and evening. Such large numbers of people come that many of the furnishings are ruined, and Jackson is forced to leave the building by a window to avoid the crush of people.
At Martin Van Buren’s inauguration, the outgoing and the incoming presidents ride together to the Inauguration. Other firsts are the first use of inaugural programs, the first use of floats in an inaugural parade, and the first time two inaugural balls are held.
William Henry Harrison showed enthusiasm for the office he won at age 68 by delivering the longest inauguration speech in history – 8,600 words in 90 minutes – in a driving ice storm. He was dead from pneumonia within a month. On April 6, 1841, John Tyler becomes the first vice president to assume the presidency. Harrison’s death puts Vice President Tyler in the center of a political debate over the rules of presidential succession. The Constitution does not specify whether a vice president who replaces a president assumes the full responsibilities of the office for the remainder of the term, or only until a special election can be held to fill the presidency. Tyler claims the right to serve out all of the nearly four years left in Harrison’s term, but Congress and the Cabinet unite in opposition. Many of Tyler’s opponents insist on calling him the acting president, and newspapers refer to him as His Accidency. Tyler resists the attempts to deny him full presidential powers and successfully complete Harrison’s term. Since Tyler, no one has seriously challenged the right of a vice president to the full powers of the presidency upon a president’s death.
David Rice Atchison may or may not have been the 12th president of the United States for a total of one day. At midnight on Saturday, March 3, 1849, outgoing President James Polk’s term expires, but incoming president Zachary Taylor refuses to be sworn in on the Sabbath and puts off the ceremony until Monday, March 5 — which may have meant nobody was president on Sunday, at least officially. Atchison, who was then president pro tempore of the Senate, would have been, under the law at the time, the successor to the presidency. However, he is not sworn in nor does he perform any presidential duties. In later years, when March 4 falls on a Sunday, as it did in 1821,1849, 1877 and 1917, the inaugural ceremonies will be held on March 5.
The day after President Zachary Taylor dies, Judge William Cranch administers the executive oath of office to Vice President Millard Fillmore on July 10, 1850, in the Hall of the House of Representatives.
Chief Justice Roger B. Taney administers the presidential oath of office to Abraham Lincoln. In his inaugural address, Lincoln appeals for the preservation of the Union, which is threatened by the recent secession of seven Southern states opposed to his policy against the expansion of slavery. Attempting to retain his support in the North without further alienating the South, Lincoln calls for compromise, promising he will not initiate force to maintain the Union or interfere with slavery in the states in which it exists.
President Abraham Lincoln is shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford Theater on April 14, 1865, and dies the next day. Andrew Johnson is administered the oath of office at the Kirkwood Hotel by Salmon P. Chase, chief justice of the United States.
Upon the death of President James Garfield, Vice President Chester Arthur receives a group at his home in New York City to take the oath of office, administered by New York Supreme Court Judge John R. Brady. The next day he again takes the oath, this time administered by Chief Justice Morrison Waite, in the Vice President’s Office in the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Theodore Roosevelt is sworn in as president after his election in 1904. He served as president for three years after President William McKinley was fatally shot by an assassin on Sept. 14, 1901. In 1905, Roosevelt’s inaugural celebration is the largest and most diverse of any in memory. Cowboys, Indians (including the Apache Chief Geronimo), coal miners, soldiers and students are some of the groups represented. Chief Justice Melville Fuller administers the oath of office on the East Portico of the Capitol.
President William Taft’s inaugural marks the first time that a president’s wife has ridden with her husband in the procession from the Capitol to the White House and is the first time an automobile is used in an inaugural parade.
Although President Woodrow Wilson has promised to keep the nation out of World War I, war with Germany hangs over the events surrounding his inauguration. He takes the oath of office privately in the President’s Room at the Capitol on Sunday, March 4, and again the next day, administered by Chief Justice Edward White on the East Portico of the Capitol. Only a month later on April 2, Wilson asks Congress to declare war. It will be declared on April 6, 1917.
President-elect Warren G. Harding sets an inaugural first by traveling to the Capitol for his inauguration in an automobile. It is just one sign of the changing times. With modern advances in communication and transportation, election officials and newly elected candidates no longer need four months to gather election returns and travel to Washington.
In a very simple ceremony on the East Portico of the Capitol, former President William Howard Taft, now Chief Justice of the United States, administers the oath of office to President-elect Calvin Coolidge.
The 20th Amendment is passed by Congress on March 2 and is ratified by the states a year later in 1933, when Utah will become the 39th state to approve it.
The former governor of New York, Franklin Roosevelt, rides to the Capitol with President Herbert Hoover for his inauguration. The country is in the midst of a severe depression, after the stock market crash in 1929. In his inaugural address, which is heard throughout the nation on radio, Roosevelt announces the New Deal and emphasizes that economic recovery is dependent on new policies and a new national attitude. Roosevelt’s address includes the famous words: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Roosevelt will go on to serve three more terms, the only president to serve more than two terms.
Because of the 20th Amendment, President Franklin Roosevelt’s first term starts on March 4, 1933, and ends on Jan. 20, 1937, cutting his term by about six weeks. The sitting Congress elected two years prior also sees shorter terms. Roosevelt’s second inauguration is held on Jan. 20. Vice President John Nance Garner is inaugurated outdoors on the same platform with the Roosevelt.
Upon the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Vice-President Harry S. Truman is sworn in as president on April 12. Truman will finish Roosevelt’s term and run successfully for reelection in 1948.
After Harry Truman becomes president, the United States does not have a vice president. The possibility that the office might fall to someone further down the line of succession was a very real one. Truman believes that the next few men in line for the presidency should be “elected representatives of the people” (Cabinet officers are appointed by the president). The Presidential Succession Act of 1947 restore the president pro tempore of the Senate and the speaker of the House of Representatives to the line of succession. Under extraordinary circumstances, the succession passes from president to vice president to speaker of the House to president pro tempore of the Senate.
Harry S. Truman is the first president to have his inauguration broadcast on television. An estimated 10 million people watch. It is also the first racially integrated inauguration with African Americans invited to all the day’s events. The current presidential seal is also unveiled.
On January 11, Congress passes a joint resolution making Inauguration Day a legal holiday in the District of Columbia.
John F. Kennedy brings new expectations to the presidency on a cold day in January when he is given the oath by Chief Justice Earl Warren. In Kennedy’s speech, he famously states: “Ask not what your country can do for, but what you can do for your country.” Kennedy is also the first Catholic President and takes the oath on a Catholic (Douay) version of the Bible.
On the day President John F. Kennedy is fatally shot, Vice President Lyndon Johnson is sworn in as president. The oath is administered in the president’s airplane, Air Force One, at Love Field in Dallas, Texas. The oath is given by U.S. District Judge Sarah Hughes, the first woman to administer the presidential oath of office.
Gerald R. Ford, the minority leader of the House of Representatives, was nominated by President Richard Nixon to replace Spiro Agnew as vice president in 1973. When Nixon resigns on August 9, then-Vice President Ford takes the executive oath of office.
After his inauguration, Jimmy Carter walks from the Capitol to the White House and orders that “Hail to the Chief” not be played to show that the day of the “imperial presidency” had passed. In an effort to bring an end to the divisive Vietnam era, Carter pardons those who skirted the draft by refusing to register or by traveling to other countries.
A hostage crisis during the final year of Jimmy Carter’s presidency plays a significant role in the 1980 election. On the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, the American hostages held by revolutionaries in Iran are released and flown first to Algiers and then to Germany, where they are greeted by Carter.
The 200th anniversary of the presidency is observed as George H.W. Bush takes the executive oath on the same Bible that George Washington used in 1789. After the ceremony, the president and first lady Barbara Bush walk from the Capitol to the White House. Bush will open the White House to the public — the first such event in 80 years – the day after he assumed office.
The inauguration of Bill Clinton is the first to fall on the federal holiday marking the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. The ceremony is the first to be broadcast over the internet.
The 20th Amendment reaches some notoriety during the impeachment proceedings for President Bill Clinton in 1998. The final House vote on impeachment is taken after the 1998 elections, and the Senate is not scheduled to hear the case until after the swearing-in of the next Congress in 1999. Arguments that the 20th Amendment requires a revote by the new Congress in 1999 are ignored.
After a highly contested election that includes ballot recounts and constitutional challenges to the Florida vote in the U.S. Supreme Court, Democrat Al Gore concedes after the Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore. This ensures that the inauguration of George W. Bush will take place on Jan. 20 as constitutionally required.