Using Legislative History to Learn About Past Presidential Inaugurations

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Inauguration Day ceremonies are typically marked by a variety of traditions, including the administration of the presidential oath of office and a speech given by the newly inaugurated President. While presidential speeches from these ceremonies are widely available (see the online collection from The Avalon Project at Yale Law Library), few records contain descriptions of the day itself. Who else made speeches, and what did they have to say? What was the weather like? How many people attended, and where did everyone sit? These are the details that can make past Inauguration Day celebrations come to life.

The Congressional Record (and its predecessors) is one resource that fills in some of these details. Remember that the Congressional Record is the official record of the proceedings and debates of Congress, and records of the activities of Congress around presidential inaugurations are also included. While the format and title of the Congressional Record has changed over the past 227 years, the purpose was always the same, and this record serves as a reliable source for tracking the activities of Congress.

Equipped with a Wikipedia list of the dates of past presidential inaugurations, I dove into these records of Congress to see what they details they might provide about past presidential inaugural ceremonies. Here are just a few of the gems to be found in these legislative history materials:

· Annals of the Congress of the United States - The second inauguration of President James Monroe, which took place on March 5, 1821, was a rather chilly day in Washington, D.C. According to the Annals of the Congress of the United States, “the day proved very unfavorable for the attendance of spectators, there having fallen during the preceding night a good deal of snow and rain.” 37 Annals of Congress 1303 (Mar. 6, 1821). That didn’t stop people from attending, with the record indicating that “an immense crowd thronged the doors of the Capitol. The number of persons who obtained admission within the walls of the Representatives’ chamber (gallery of course included) could not have been less than two thousand.” Id.

· Congressional Globe - In the days leading up to the first inauguration of President Ulysses S. Grant, the Senate debated where to hold the inaugural ball. See 40 Congressional Globe 329 (Jan. 13, 1869). Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts proposed the Patent Office, but he was told that the office was unavailable because it was “full of things that do not dance.” Id.  

Congressional Globe Entry on the Inauguration of President Ulysses S. Grant
Congressional Globe Entry on the Inauguration of President Ulysses S. Grant

· Congressional Record -At the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy on January 20, 1961, Robert Frost became the first poet to read at a presidential inauguration. He recited his poem entitled “The Gift Outright” and preceded his recitation with an introductory “Dedication,” a second and new poem authored by Frost. The full text of “Dedication” and “The Gift Outright” are recorded at 107 Cong. Rec. 1012 (Jan. 20, 1961).

Interested researchers can access the earlier publications, including the Annals of the Congress of the United States and the Congressional Globe online via the Library of Congress’ Century of Lawmaking website. Coverage of the Congressional Record from 1983-present can also be viewed on Congress’ website and via GovInfo. For UNC law students and faculty, full collections of all these records are also available via HeinOnline

Posted by Melissa M. Hyland on Tue. January 19, 2021 2:30 PM
Categories: Uncategorized

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