By Ninth District U.S. ep. Morgan Griffith
Since 1789, the inauguration of a president of the United States every four years has functioned as an important civic ritual that transcends partisan politics.
The Constitution originally said very little about inaugural ceremonies, only stating that the president must take an oath before assuming office. The 20th Amendment set the time for the transfer of power at noon on January 20. Otherwise, the inaugural ceremonies have depended on our traditions and the individuals taking office.
As in many other things, George Washington set precedents for how inaugurations would work. He took the oath of office as the first president of the United States on April 30, 1789 in New York City, the federal capital at the time. The former general chose to wear an American-made suit of plain brown broadcloth. He added the phrase “so help me God” to the end of the oath. Although the Constitution makes no mention of an inaugural address, he opted to give a speech lasting about ten minutes in the Senate chamber after he took the oath.
Inaugurations have followed the pattern set by Washington in the years since, with some changes. John Adams’ inauguration in Philadelphia in 1797 marked the first transfer of power from one president to another. Ceremonies were moved outside beginning with James Monroe in 1817 and held on the West Front of the Capitol since Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration in 1981 (his second in 1985 was held inside because of extreme cold).
The inaugural addresses in particular occupy an important place in our tradition, as they have sometimes included rhetoric that earns an honored place in American history. Thomas Jefferson used his first address to say, “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural appealed to “the better angels of our nature” and his second called for “malice toward none” and “charity for all.” Franklin Roosevelt declared that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Considering the importance presidential inaugurations have in our traditions, I consider it my duty as a Member of Congress to attend regardless of the individual being sworn in. It is a matter of respect for the office of president of the United States and for our system of government.
In this column four years ago, I stated disappointment in the fact that dozens of Democratic Members of Congress had decided to boycott President Trump’s inauguration. I believed their choice disrespected our institutions and the peaceful transfer of power. I said as long as I was in office absent an illness in my family, I would be at an inauguration no matter the individual being sworn in.
Therefore, on January 20, 2021 I attended the swearing in of President Joe Biden. The 2020 election was not the first presidential election with controversy, nor will it be the last. No matter whom you supported in November or what you think about the process, Joe Biden is our president now and deserves our respect.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s ceremony looked different than the ones I have attended previously, but the basic outlines remained the same. New Vice President Kamala Harris was sworn in first. Chief Justice Roberts swore in the new President a few minutes before noon, and he began his inaugural address.
I expect that I will have plenty of occasions to respectfully disagree with President Biden and his Administration in the years to come, but I appreciate the tone with which he started his presidency.
The change in administration does not change my priorities: serving the needs of Virginia’s Ninth Congressional District. If I can meet them by working with the new Administration, I will do so. If meeting them means opposing the new Administration, I will do that as well.
But those agreements and disagreements were not the point of January 20. The inaugural ceremonies express our shared commitment as Americans to our Constitution and representative government. I think that’s important. I urge the new Administration to maintain that commitment throughout its term, not only at its beginning.