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Tapping deep into America's past

Professor David Reynolds
Presenter of America, Empire of Liberty, on Radio 4

Fireworks at the White House

There really is nothing like it. A few other countries, such as Ireland, inaugurate their presidents in pomp and circumstance but the United States tops the lot. And the Obama inauguration is going to go down as one of the glitziest.

You might think it strange that a country that seems so anti-traditional should be enthralled by this four-year ritual but the inauguration is America's version of a coronation - a democratic crowning, of a leader chosen by the votes of the people.

You can see this in the very first inauguration, of George Washington, in April 1789.

The infant United States didn't yet have its own capital, so the event took place in New York City on the balcony of Federal Hall in the heart of Wall Street.

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Washington, America's victorious general in the War of Independence, was rowed across the Hudson River in a 50-foot barge, manned by 13 oarsmen in white smocks - symbolising the 13 states of the new nation.

Cannon fired a 13-gun salute and the band played God Save the King.

Yet the words were very different from Britain's national anthem: "Thrice welcome to this shore, Our Leader now no more, But Ruler thou..."

And Washington was dressed not in sumptuous robes but in "superfine American broad cloths" that had been made up into a suit for the occasion.

Clothed in New World simplicity he took the oath of office to support and defend the US Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, whereupon New York dissolved in a week of parties, festivities and crass commercialism - with every huckster cashing on the market for GW souvenirs.

Blueprint for Obama's big night

Here, in 1789, we find the basic ingredients of American inaugurations ever since.

It was Andrew Jackson in 1829 who established the tradition of an open-air inauguration on the steps of the Capitol.

This was appropriate because Jackson - a tough old Indian-fighter from Tennessee - was really America's first democratic president, elected under a franchise that gave most white adult males the vote.

His inauguration was therefore attended by a hundreds of well-wishers.

After Jackson had finished his speech they closed in, desperate to shake his hand. When he finally escaped on horseback up Pennsylvania Avenue, the mob followed and literally crashed the reception at the White House.

Snobs said that the broken china and bloody noses gave a new meaning to the "sovereignty of the people".

Barack Obama, like all his predecessors, will come down to earth, beginning the loneliest, most remorseless job in the world

Being open to the people also means being vulnerable.

Security will be extremely tight for America's first black president, but perhaps the tensest inauguration was that of Abraham Lincoln in 1861.

The country was on the verge of Civil War, Washington was full of Southern sympathisers and rumours were rife of assassination plots.

So soldiers ringed the presidential carriage on its way to the Capitol while sharpshooters stood guard on rooftops.

Lincoln survived the inauguration and also four years of Civil War, only to be gunned down in the moment of victory.

Echoes in the past

In 2009, the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, Barack Obama, has his fellow Illinoisan - the Great Emancipator of the slaves - much in mind.

His theme, echoing Lincoln, is A New Birth of Freedom - the promise made famous by President Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address in 1863.

The other inauguration that has particular historical resonance today is Franklin D Roosevelt's in 1933.

America was then in the grip of the Great Depression, with 25% unemployment and all but 10 of the 48 states forced to close their banks.

Franklin Roosevelt
Listen to extracts of FDR's inaugural speech:
FDR's inaugural address struck a sombre but resolute note. In almost biblical terms he denounced the "unscrupulous money changers" who "know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers".

But he insisted that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance".

Obama will seek to emulate Roosevelt's upbeat, inspirational leadership.

The 1933 inaugural was held on 4 March, the day prescribed since 1793 - four months after the election in order to allow the presidential electors (who formally cast the people's votes) enough time to convene in the capital.

This timetable made sense in the horse-and-buggy age but not in the era of railroads, let alone planes.

The banking collapse of 1932-3 occurred in the long transition between a lame-duck president and his still pinioned successor and that's why in 1937 the handover time was cut almost in half, with inauguration day moved to 20 January.

All change

Most inaugurations took place on the east steps of the Capitol, until 1981 when Ronald Reagan moved the event to the West Front.

The main reason was to create more space for spectators but the change was also richly symbolic.

From the West Front the new president looks out along the grassy Mall to the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery - across some of the great markers of American history and then on, in imagination, to the heartland of his vast country.

That is the meaning of an American inauguration: it taps deep into the nation's past while also reaching out towards the future.

So it will be with Barack Obama at High Noon on 20 January - that exhilarating moment of democratic alchemy when the voters' choice becomes the people's king.

But then he, like all his predecessors, will come down to earth, beginning the loneliest, most remorseless job in the world, for which nothing in his own experience or that of the nation can possibly prepare him.


David Reynolds is Professor of International History at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Christ's College.

The second series of America, Empire of Liberty will broadcast from Monday, 19 January 2009 on BBC Radio 4. Listen daily at 15.45 GMT, or catch up with the omnibus edition at 21.00 GMT every Sunday. The series is also available on the BBC iPlayer.

The accompanying book America, Empire of Liberty is published in the UK in January 2009.

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