Henningsen: Inauguration Day Symbolism

Print More

(HOST) As the hour nears when Barack Obama will be sworn in as our 44th president, teacher, historian, and commentator Vic Henningsen considers the symbolism of presidential inaugurations.

(HENNINGSEN) To paraphrase historian John William Ward: On Inauguration Day Americans make of their incoming president "a mirror for themselves." For a moment, in that lonely figure we see our best sense of ourselves. On him we hang our hopes and fears; to him we entrust our future.

These are the most "public" events of any presidency – moments when we search earnestly for indications of what’s to come; moments we re-visit and re-examine years later for signs predicting what then happened.  This one will be no exception.  Pundits compare it to other inaugurations at moments of crisis: Lincoln, sworn in as civil war loomed; Franklin Roosevelt, taking office in the depths of the Depression.

I think of two others.

The first was that of 1801 after Thomas Jefferson won what scholars still regard as the dirtiest election in our history. This marked the first time the United States experienced something we now take for granted, but shouldn’t:   the peaceful transfer of power from one party to another.  Before that, Americans had shown themselves to be better revolutionaries than governors: good at overturning governments; not running them. Every time power changed hands, the government changed:  from a monarchy to a confederation in 1776 and then, in 1787, to a constitutional republic.  Historians call Jefferson’s election the "Revolution of 1800":  the first time the system created by the Constitution really worked.

The second symbolic inauguration was that of Andrew Jackson in 1829, the moment America truly became "democratic."  In the early republic, property ownership determined who could vote.  Men without property were deemed not responsible enough to be trusted with the franchise.  But led by Vermont, by the 1820’s states had extended the vote to all free, white males over 21.  Not democratic enough by our standards, but – by those of the time – a revolutionary change.  Those voters turned out aristocratic John Quincy Adams in favor of "Old Hickory".  At Jackson’s inauguration the Washington elite was elbowed aside by muddy booted backwoodsmen and other "common folk" who mobbed the White House to congratulate their frontier hero.  They trashed the Executive Mansion; Jackson was spirited away for his own safety; the hordes left the building only because of a rumor that free rum was available on the lawn.  Elites despaired; others hailed the triumph of the common man.

Neither Jefferson nor Jackson became president in a crisis, which Obama is certainly doing.  But each took office at an intensely symbolic moment- something Obama is also certainly doing.  Both inaugurations celebrated what America had become; both suggested what it might yet be.  Both gave president and citizens alike the confidence to face the crises that did arise later.   

The inauguration of our first black president permits us, for a moment, to celebrate how far we’ve come.  

And that may help us face the distance we have yet to travel.

Comments are closed.