Today in History

Today in History: January 20

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Inauguration

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Executive Oath of Office
The Constitution of the United States,
Article II, Section 1, Clause 8

Inauguration of President Franklin
Roosevelt
Inauguration of President Franklin Roosevelt,
Washington, D.C.
Theodor Horydczak, photographer,
circa 1933-1945.
Washington as It Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak, 1923-1959

On January 20, 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first U.S. president sworn into office in January. It was his second of four inaugurations; the first had been held fours years earlier on March 4, 1933. Roosevelt's first inauguration had been shadowed by the onset of the Great Depression—within a week of taking office, the new president had declared a federal bank holiday.

Roosevelt's second inaugural address was optimistic about the gains that had been made during his first administration, while acknowledging that much more was needed. In his speech he shared his vision of the nation's potential and challenged Americans to continue in a united effort to address poverty.

Let us ask again: Have we reached the goal of our vision of that fourth day of March 1933? Have we found our happy valley? I see a great nation, upon a great continent, blessed with a great wealth of natural resources…I see a United States which can demonstrate that, under democratic methods of government, national wealth can be translated into a spreading volume of human comforts hitherto unknown…But here is the challenge to our democracy: In this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens…who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life…The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little…

Second Inaugural Address (external link),
Franklin D. Roosevelt,
Wednesday, January 20, 1937

The Constitution of the United States had established March 4 as Inauguration Day in order to allow enough time after Election Day for officials to gather election returns and for newly-elected candidates to travel to the capital. With modern advances in communication and transportation, the lengthy transition period proved unnecessary and legislators pressed for change. The date was moved to January 20 with the passage of the Twentieth Amendment in 1933.

Inaugural celebrations have run the gamut from Andrew Jackson's raucous White House reception in 1829 to FDR's somber wartime affair in 1945, but a basic pattern of activities has been established over the years. Around noon, the president is sworn in at the Capitol by the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. After taking the brief, 35-word oath of office, the new chief executive delivers an inaugural address, followed by a parade through the city, and an evening of gala festivities.

Theodore Roosevelt's Inaugural Ceremony, 1905
Theodore Roosevelt's Inaugural Ceremony,
1905.
Theodore Roosevelt: His Life and Times on Film

  • American Memory contains 13 presidential collections and a wide variety of items related to presidential inaugurations, including film footage of Theodore Roosevelt and McKinley, photographs of Abraham Lincoln and Calvin Coolidge, and the manuscript of the very first inaugural address given by George Washington on April 30, 1789. Search both the presidential collections and all collections using the keyword inauguration to retrieve more material.
  • Search on inauguration in Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, 1870-1885 to see the "Inauguration Grand March" dedicated to President Rutherford B. Hayes and Vice President William Wheeler. Also, don't miss the collection's special presentation A Decade of Music in America, 1870-79, featuring campaign songs and other music for public occasions.
  • Don't miss other features in Today in History on the original Inauguration Day (March 4), and on the inaugural celebrations of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
  • For an introduction to relevant American Memory materials, visit Inaugurations, a feature presentation of the Teachers Page.

Kennedy's Inauguration

Such as we were we gave ourselves outright

Robert Frost
"The Gift Outright"

On January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy distinguished his inaugural ceremony with a poetry reading by fellow New Englander Robert Frost. Blinded by the sun's glare on the snow-covered Capitol grounds, Frost found himself unable to read the poem he had prepared. Instead, he recited "The Gift Outright" from memory, his words moving many. "Dedication," the poem Frost intended to read at the Kennedy inauguration, is featured in Words and Deeds in American History. "The Gift Outright" can be found in the Imagination section of the Library's American Treasures exhibition.

Dedication, Robert Frost's presidential inaugural poem, 20 January 1961.
"Dedication,"
Poem composed by Robert Frost for the 1961 inauguration of John F. Kennedy.
Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division's First 100 Years

Gift Outright
"The Gift Outright,"
Poem recited by Robert Frost at the 1961 inauguration of John F. Kennedy.
Imagination section,
American Treasures of the Library of Congress

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

John F. Kennedy,
Inaugural Address (external link),
Friday, January 20, 1961