Why bother with inaugurations? Are they really that important. Yes, they are. Inaugurations are essential because:
• They are a picture of our representative government.
• They show the world a peaceful transfer of power.
• They put the “united” in United States.
• They remind us of the past to point us to the future.
• They show respect for God.
Inaugurations are the most tangible, visible picture of a government based on representation, not royalty. We said goodbye to “God save the king” in 1776 to embrace “We the people of the United States.” When was the last time Great Britain witnessed a coronation? Just a mere 60 years ago.
America’s inaugural is a literal coming together of our government’s three branches. The president takes an oath from the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice on the steps of the Capitol, which houses Congress. In one moment, the three branches of government—executive, judicial and legislative—are on display, united under the US Constitution.
Inaugurations are crucial because they show the world a peaceful transfer of power.
“Few of us stop to think how unique we really are,” Ronald Reagan explained in his 1981 inaugural during the Cold War. “In the eyes of many in the world, this every-four-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.”
In America, peacefully transferring power is always on the horizon. Because of the 22nd Amendment, presidents can only serve two terms.
What often keeps us from fully appreciating an inauguration is politics. Inaugurals come after bitter polarizing elections ending with a winner and loser. How people voted understandably influences their enthusiasm about inaugurations.
In his inaugural, John F. Kennedy, who won in a squeaker, sought to put the “united” back into the United States: “We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom.”
He understood that Americans are never completely united in their preference for president, but they can unite in the Constitution’s promise of individual liberty.
Inaugurations are important because they use the past to point us to the future. Bill Clinton tapped the nation’s founding to prepare Americans for upcoming global technological changes.
“When George Washington first took the oath I have just sworn to uphold, news traveled slowly across the land by horseback and across the ocean by boat. Now, the sights and sounds of this ceremony are broadcast instantaneously to billions around the world.”
Franklin Roosevelt used the past to encourage a Depression-era America: “This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.”
Inaugurations give us memorable lines, such as Reagan’s punchy quip: “We are a nation that has a government—not the other way around.”
Kennedy left us with this nugget: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”
These were ideas that the American people could easily understand. They gave hope for the future.
Inaugurations matter because they demonstrate respect for God. Franklin Roosevelt invoked a blessing: “May He guide me in the days to come,” while Lincoln eloquently said: “The mystic chords of memory. . . will yet swell the chorus of the union, when again touched. . . by the better angels of our nature.”
George W. Bush explained: “From the day of our founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth.”
By demonstrating respect for God, a president shows the world that he is grasping his newfound power with a hand of humility.
Inaugurals point us to the future with calls to action. Barack Obama’s first was succinct: “The state of our economy calls for action: bold and swift.”
Kennedy’s is perhaps the most famous: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
He also used scripture to underscore his point: “Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah—to ‘undo the heavy burdens. . . and to let the oppressed go free.’”
Why bother with inaugurations? Because we are the keepers of our representative government, as George Washington explained in his inaugural call to action:
“The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly. . . staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”
Washington was right. Inaugurals are important because each generation is responsible for peacefully passing freedom to the next, for continuing a government based on representation. Inaugurations are tangible transfers of that trust and responsibility, both for the president to uphold our laws under God and the people to hold their government accountable.
Jane Hampton Cook is an award-winning author and a former White House webmaster. The author of nine books her latest is "The Burning of the White House: James & Dolley Madison and the War of 1812." For more, visit her website, janecook.com.