Come One, Come All! How Technology Transformed Inauguration Day
by Heather Lang
On April 16, 1789, George Washington waved goodbye to Martha and began the long journey by horse and carriage from his home in Mount Vernon, Virginia to New York City, where he would be inaugurated. Our country was about to introduce its first president, but there were no telephones, no television broadcasts, and no email blasts to spread news about this momentous occasion.
From New York and Philadelphia and Baltimore, people spread word about the inauguration by letters that were delivered on horseback. But delivery could take days, weeks, or months depending on the distance, weather, and terrain. People also read news about the inauguration in newspapers; about 100 papers existed at that time. Sometimes mail carriers delivered newspapers by horseback to more remote villages, but most newspapers were primarily available in cities. Still the most common way to share important news was by word of mouth, especially in community settings like churches.
Even though our country only extended to the Mississippi River, without technology, word of George Washington’s Inauguration did not reach many of its four million citizens until well after the event. Communication was especially difficult to those settlers who had moved west of the Appalachian Mountains into unexplored lands.
• Early Public Participation in Inauguration Day
• Read All About It!
• Far and Wide
• Keeping Up with Technology
• Television and the Internet
• Activities and Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
• Reference Sources
Early Public Participation in Inauguration Day
On April 30, 1789, a large crowd gathered to witness George Washington being sworn into office on the balcony of Federal Hall, but only those who were within earshot heard him take his oath. And only the members of Congress had the privilege of hearing his address, which was held inside the building.
Without technology, Americans found other ways to participate in Inauguration Day. During General Washington’s seven-day journey, he made stops in Alexandria, Georgetown, Washington, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Word had spread to these cities in time for the public to celebrate their new leader. In each city, the public greeted him with tremendous applause, banners, banquets, and receiving lines. Washington took this opportunity to connect with thousands of Americans, building excitement around his inauguration.
In 1801 President Thomas Jefferson began the tradition of inaugural open houses at the executive mansion. This gave the public an opportunity to meet and welcome the new president. But when Andrew Jackson became president, this civilized tradition sent the president fleeing for safety. A rowdy crowd of more than 20,000 descended on the executive mansion, trampling on the furniture, and breaking dishes in their celebration. Despite the obvious hazards, this tradition remained intact until 1885 when Grover Cleveland decided it was safer to greet the public outside the White House from a grandstand.
Read All About It!
Progress in technology was slow at first, but each improvement allowed Americans who could not be present at a presidential inauguration to gain a glimpse into the event. For Thomas Jefferson, Inauguration Day was not just a celebration. Jefferson viewed it as an opportunity to bring a divided nation together. He knew that his audience was not limited to the crowd of nearly a thousand that crammed in the Senate Chamber. On the morning of March 4, 1801, Jefferson gave an advance copy of his address to The National Intelligencer. The newspaper made it available to the public right after Jefferson delivered the address.
Far and Wide
On March 4, 1845, inventor Samuel Morse magically transmitted James Polk’s inaugural address from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore using his new invention: the telegraph. Unfortunately Polk delivered his thirty-minute speech from the Capitol steps through rain and umbrellas. Morse, sitting on a platform nearby, was one of the few to hear the speech. As Polk spoke, Morse tap-tap-tapped away on his telegraph. Using electrical pulses, the device transmitted his code through a wire all the way to Baltimore, where it was instantly received and then decoded. This was the beginning of live broadcasting.
The development of photography further transformed the public’s ability to participate in presidential inaugurations. It was one thing to read about or look at illustrations of an inaugural event, but seeing a photo made the inauguration even more tangible. Photography also allowed the public to see what the Capitol looked like. In 1857, John Wood took the first photograph at an inaugural ceremony when James Buchanan became president.
Another forty years passed before the motion picture camera emerged and captured some footage of William McKinley’s inauguration for the world to see. In 1925 Americans crowded around radios and listened to Calvin Coolidge taking his oath of office. Approximately twenty radio stations broadcast the ceremony to 23 million listeners, including children who listened in at their school auditoriums.
Keeping Up with Technology
Originally, the Constitution provided that Inauguration Day would be held on March 4th, four months after the election. In the late eighteenth century, it took this amount of time to gather election returns and for the new president to get his affairs in order and make the long journey to the Capitol. This transition became known as “the lame duck” period—when the old president became inactive and the president-elect had no power to act. The lame duck period sometimes caused serious problems for the country in times of crisis. For example, in 1861 after Lincoln was elected, southern states began to secede from the Union and President Buchanan failed to take action against them. Lincoln could not take any steps until he took office in March.
As technology and transportation improved, the long period of time between the election and taking office was not necessary. Finally in 1933, Congress ratified the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution making January 20th the date when the new president would take office.
Television and the Internet
Until television the world could not both watch and listen to a president’s inaugural ceremony. Television had a way of transporting the public to the event like no other technology could. In 1949 approximately ten million Americans watched and listened to Harry Truman’s inauguration ceremony on television.
Technology has developed so rapidly in the last sixty years that now almost anyone in the world can watch an inauguration live on television or on the Internet. Friends who are attending the inaugural events can send instant reports and photos. Thanks to technology, everyone is invited to join in the celebration!
Activities and Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
Be a Reporter for the Day
Reporters play a critical role in educating the public by sharing facts and news with the world. Some reporters try to report in an unbiased manner. Many intentionally share their own perspectives. And some unintentionally reveal their viewpoints by the information they select to share.
When George Washington became our first president, it was difficult for the public to participate in his inauguration. Transportation was limited to horses and feet. Microphones, radios, and televisions had not been invented. As technology improved, so did the public’s access to Inauguration Day. Today we all are invited to the party!
Students can work alone or with a partner to produce a newspaper article, voice recording, or video recording that reports on an Inauguration Day event in history.
- Write a newspaper article reporting on a current or historical Inauguration Day event. Remember to bring flavor to your article by including rich historical details, such as information about the setting or clothing. Be sure to include quotes. Visit your local library to do your research.
- Pretend you are a radio broadcaster reporting live on an interesting inaugural event. Remember: you want to make your audience feel like they are there experiencing the event with you. You could include brief interviews with spectators or historical figures. Write your script first, and then record it.
- Prepare a short video reporting on an interesting inaugural event. Perhaps it will be an interview with a historical figure, or maybe it will include part of an inaugural address. Remember to dress the part!
Illustrate a Futuristic Inauguration Day
Imagine what Inauguration Day might look like in the year 2050? How about 2222? How will technology have changed and shaped the event? What will people be wearing? What will the Capitol look like? Choose a date in the future and illustrate a specific event from Inauguration Day.
Bendat, Jim. Democracy’s Big Day: The Inauguration of Our President 1789-2009. New York: iUniverse Star, 2008.
“The Constitution and the Inauguration of the President.” January 2013.
“First Inauguration.” January 2013.
“The Inauguration of George Washington, 1789.” January 2013.
“Inauguration of William McKinley, 1897.” January 2013.
“Presidential Inaugurations: The Capitol Connection.” February 2016.
©2020 Heather Lang; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance