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Inaugural Traditions and Notes

By Master Sgt. Stephen Barrett, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 6, 1997 – When Bill Clinton recites the oath of office Jan. 20 and begins his second term as president, the military will again play a large part in the cermonies.

For the military, support of the presidential inaugural is but a part of the event's history and tradition. From the time George Washington took the first presidential oath in 1789, the military has had some role in supporting the nation's civilian leader. Soldiers escorted Washington to and from his oath-taking in New York City.

The first inaugural parade in 1809 had a military touch. Militia members stationed in Washington volunteered to accompany the fourth president -- James Madison -- from his home, in Orange County, Va., to the Capitol.

James Monroe, the fifth president, was the first to hold his inauguration outdoors. He also had a large presidential escort including Marines, two infantry companies and rifle and artillery units. After Monroe took the oath, the militia and artillery units throughout the Washington area fired off celebratory blasts.

The first inaugural parade to include floats was held for William Henry Harrison in 1841. The floats had a military theme,and thousands of militia members marched -- including veterans who fought alongside Harrison during the War of 1812.

Generally, the military performs only ceremonial and support roles during the inaugural. There have, however, been exceptions.

In 1861, the military increased its inaugural role as Abraham Lincoln assumed the presidency. Besides its traditional ceremonial role, the military also enforced the first security measures at an inauguration -- measures necessary due to a number of death threats Lincoln received.

Another Civil War connection saw another tradition begin in 1873. When President Ulysses S. Grant took the oath of office for his second term, cadets and midshipmen from the service academies at West Point, N.Y. and Annapolis, Md., marched in the inaugural parade. The Air Force and Coast Guard academies have joined the inaugural parade, and all four march in order of service seniority.

Military music also plays a traditional role in the inaugural parade. In 1789, an act of Congress established the Marine Band, "The Presidents Own." The Marine Band went on to play at the 1801 inauguration of Thomas Jefferson and every presidential inauguration since.

For President Benjamin Harrison's inaugural ball in 1889, only the Marine Band provided entertainment. The Harrisons did not believe in drinking and dancing during their inaugural festivities, but felt it appropriate for the Marine Band to play a few marches.

Today, all military ceremonial bands participate in the inaugural, with the U.S. Army Band, "Pershing's Own," leading the presidential procession from the U.S. Capitol to the White House. The U.S. Army Field Band from Fort Meade, Md., traditionally leads the parade past the presidential reviewing stand.

Although the military has its tradition and highlights, other traditions are worth noting. For years, first ladies did not always have a visible role in the inauguration ceremony. That changed in 1909 when May Taft, wife of the newly elected William H. Taft, became the "first" first lady to ride alongside the president during the inaugural parade.

Most first ladies stand by their spouses as they take the presidential oath. Some have held the Bible that their spouses use in taking the oath.

The first president to use a vehicle during the inaugural parade was Warren Harding in 1921. Calvin Coolidge, in 1925, was the first president to have his inaugural address broadcast over radio. Officials estimated over 20 million people watched the first televised inaugural parade for Harry S. Truman, in 1949.

The weather has been a factor in inaugurations. For the first 32 presidents, March 4 -- not Jan. 20 -- was Inauguration Day. In the early days of the nation, winter weather caused delays in getting the electors together to confirm the new president. However, Washington is not immune to bad winter weather in March, and it caused some inaugural problems.

In the 1841 inaugural, William Henry Harrison refused to wear a topcoat while delivering the longest inaugural address on record -- one hour and 45 minutes. It was unusually cold and windy that day, and he died less than one month later of pneumonia, serving the shortest term as president. He also became the first president to die in office.

The weather also forced some unusual parade situations. A heavy snow storm in New York prevented 7,000 members of the 7th New York Regiment from arriving on time for Taft's inaugural in 1909. The unit refused to return home until it marched for Taft. Taft obliged -- agreeing go out and watch them from the presidential reviewing stand the following day.

In 1933, Congress passed the 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which changed the inauguration to January 20. Franklin D. Roosevelt, became the first president inaugurated on the new date when he took the oath on Jan. 20, 1937 -- his second inauguration.

The last time weather severly affected the inaugural was in 1985. President Ronald Reagan took his second oath of office from the Capitol Rotunda as bitter cold temperatures forced the ceremony indoors.

Officials were planning to cancel the parade, but bands and marchers who traveled to Washington wanted a chance to march before the president. After some quick negotiating, inaugural organizers set up a reviewing stand and conducted an indoor parade at a local arena. It was the first and only inaugural parade held indoors.

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