History Behind Inaugurations At The Capitol

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This year's inaugural ceremony coincides with the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln's words and achievements will be a large theme in Tuesday's events.


We'll continue to have live reports from the Mall throughout the morning and into the early afternoon. Now, this inauguration coincides with the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, whose words and achievements will be a theme in today's ceremony. But the first inaugural to take place at the United States Capitol was that of Thomas Jefferson in 1801. Founding father, author of the Declaration of Independence. Also, incidentally, a slave owner. Here to tell us about his first inauguration is our own historian and news analyst, Cokie Roberts. Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Good morning, Steve. What a day.

INSKEEP: Indeed, indeed. How did Thomas Jefferson go about inaugurating this place where the swearing-in will take place today?

ROBERTS: Well, it had been after the presidency of John Adams, and people had thought that Adams was too monarchical. So Jefferson, in a great PR stunt, walked to the Capitol - the under-construction capital - from his boarding house on Capitol Hill, making a statement, I'm a man of the people. And he got there, the only room that was complete was the Senate chamber. And so I'm now going to read to you the description of it from a woman named Margaret Bayard Smith, who was a - became a journalist and a novelist in her own right. At this point, she was married to a journalist.

But she said, "On one side of the house, the Senate sat. The other was resigned by the representatives to the ladies." So they were all there. "It has been conjectured by several gentlemen whom I'd asked that they were near a thousand persons within the walls. The speech was delivered in so low a tone that few heard it." Jefferson was apparently a terrible speaker, which is why he never gave a State of the Union speech to the Congress. He sent them in writing, and that lasted up until Woodrow Wilson's time.

INSKEEP: Well, how did it go when, like Barack Obama today, he was sworn in by a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who he had not favored - who he had not voted to confirm?

ROBERTS: Well, he wasn't there, of course, to vote on John Marshall. But John Marshall was a cousin of Thomas Jefferson, and they hated each other. And John Adams had appointed John Marshall as one of the famous - or infamous - midnight judges at the end of his term. And Jefferson just tried throughout his entire presidency to undo that. To - the whole famous case of Marbury versus Madison - establishing judiciary review was all in response to it, because Marshall and Jefferson were such enemies. And Jefferson, in an extraordinary set of letters to Abigail Adams, complained about this appointment.

But also, his vice president, Aaron Burr, he had tied with, as you recall that famous story, and they had just gone through 36 ballots where, finally, Jefferson won at the end of that. So it was not exactly a friendly dais that you were talking about there. A vice president who had refused to pull out in the race against him, a cousin who was chief justice administering the oath, who he didn't like very much.

INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR's Cokie Roberts on this inauguration morning, as thousands of people already are gathering outside the U.S. Capitol. She's telling us about the first inauguration at that site in 1801. And since we've just been through a presidential transition, Cokie, can you tell us what the transition was like in 1801?

ROBERTS: Well, John Adams - we've seen a tremendous graciousness on the part of George W. Bush toward Barack Obama, and Barack Obama toward the Bushes. And we will see at noon today the current president sitting there handing over power to the new president, even though it's a different party. It is a remarkable thing we do in this country over and over. You know, it still is this peaceful transfer of power. That the loser accepts the verdict. But on that day in 1801, the first one at this United States Capitol, John Adams snuck out of town early in the morning on an early stagecoach. He didn't want to be there to see his former vice president and former friend and current foe to take that oath of office. But since then, pretty much they have been, except John Quincy Adams, he didn't show up for Andrew Jackson either.

INSKEEP: OK, thanks very much. That's NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts on this inauguration morning. And we'll continue to have live coverage from the U.S. Capitol and elsewhere throughout this day. It's Morning Edition from NPR News.

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