Author: Stanton H. Hudson, Jr., Executive Director/Site Superintendent @ Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site
At the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site, we are in the unique position of being surrounded by an important piece of American history and tradition that the rest of the country only experiences once every four years. In a sense, we exist to pay tribute to the solemn act of the peaceful transition of the power and office of the presidency from one person to the next.
We know better than most that behind the pomp and pageantry there are only a handful of Constitutional requirements to elevate a person to the highest office in the country. The simplicity of the act is, perhaps, its most symbolic element. One private citizen, one federal magistrate, and one sentence. The entirety of the power of the executive is transferred in less than fifty words. By design, it is simple and solemn. Since 1789, the oath of office has been administered in fifty-eight planned inaugural ceremonies and nine unexpected events. Each time, the same simple formula is used.
The framers of our Constitution grappled with the idea of an executive officer.
The framers of our Constitution grappled with the idea of an executive officer. They walked a fine line between empowering the office to the point of abuse or restricting it to the point of ineffectiveness. In similar fashion to the rest of our government, they settled on a compromise – a democratically elected leader with a fixed term. All the elements of assuming the presidency were meant to remind incoming presidents that the office was a privilege bestowed upon them by the people they serve and represent. There is an inherent expectation that with all the power of the office comes the responsibility of stepping away at the end of the term.
The uniqueness of that dynamic is best expressed by Theodore Roosevelt. As he reflected on assuming the presidency, he said, “To me there is something fine in the American theory that a private citizen can be chosen by the people to occupy a position as great as that of the mightiest monarch, and to exercise a power which may for the time being surpass that of a Czar, Kaiser, or Pope, and then, after having filled his position, the man shall leave it as a non pensioned private citizen, who goes back into the ranks of his fellow citizens with entire self-respect, claiming nothing save what on his own individual merits he is entitled to receive.” (To Sir George Otto Trevelyan, October 1, 1911)
This tradition has been pushed and tested during the past 232 years. Presidents have changed and expanded the reach of their office over time and even the inaugural ceremony itself has evolved. Originally held on or around March 4th, it was moved under Franklin Roosevelt to the January date we know today. It has been held in various locations in Washington, D.C. and, on four occasions, across our nation.
On September 14, 1901, Buffalo, NY served as the backdrop for one of the four inaugurations outside our nation’s capital. Amidst national tragedy, Theodore Roosevelt assumed the office of the presidency in a short, somber ceremony. Even when pushed to the extreme, as was the case in 1901 when Roosevelt became the third vice president in thirty-six years to assume the presidency following the assassination of the president, the core integrity of the tradition was maintained.
That is part of what makes the American political process so special. Every four years we as a people come together to raise our voices and cast our votes. The democratic election of our president and other governmental leaders is the cornerstone of American politics. Our voices alone are enough to elevate someone to the highest office in the land. While the elections of 1800, 1824, 1860, 1876, 1912, 1948, 1960, and 2000 have been contested, the democratic process established more than two centuries ago has weathered the test of time.
Following are photos from the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site:
Lead image: TR reprisor reviewing Proclamation to the Nation