Trump’s Washington Wedding
An American Inauguration is like a wedding: the President is the groom, the people his bride. Donald Trump is about to pledge his troth. It didn’t always work this way, and, really, it shouldn’t. Washington isn’t Vegas.
Only lately has the American Presidency become romantic. The oath itself, established in Article II of the Constitution, is an oath of office, not a confession of love, and it doesn’t mention the American people. Instead, before Congress, the new President is supposed to pledge himself to the office and promise to protect the Constitution: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
The relationship between the first American Presidents and the American people wasn’t spousal; it was paternal. This began with George Washington. In the first draft of his Inaugural Address, Washington remarked that, having no children of his own, he would never establish a dynasty—“the Divine providence hath not seen fit that my blood should be transmitted or my name perpetuated by the endearing though sometimes seducing, channel of personal offspring”—but this also assured Americans that no one was closer in his affections. Washington addressed his remarks to Congress; the people didn’t hear them, they read them. Thomas Jefferson addressed his Inaugural to “Friends & Fellow Citizens,” though this was purely notional: he was speaking to Congress. As I wrote eight years ago, in an essay on the history of the Inaugural Address, James Monroe was the first President to be inaugurated outdoors (only because the Capitol was closed for renovations), before an audience of eight thousand, who could not possibly have heard a word he said. Andrew Jackson, in 1829, was the first President to ignore Congress and instead address his speech to the American people—“Fellow-Citizens” —twenty thousand of whom showed up to watch Chief Justice John Marshall ask Jackson to take his vows by placing his hand on a Bible. One witness described the scene: “The President took it from his hands, pressed his lips to it, laid it reverently down, then bowed again to the people—Yes, to the people in all their majesty.” In his speech, Jackson talked, a bit sentimentally, about “the habits of our Government and the feelings of our people.” When he finished, he bowed again, and rode his horse to the White House.
Except for Zachary Taylor’s, every nineteenth-century Inaugural Address mentioned the Constitution, which is what the President is actually wedding himself to. Jackson aside, there was little of romance in the ceremony itself. In Abraham Lincoln’s first Inaugural Address, he gave a brilliant and searing lecture about the powers of the different branches of government, while, upending Washington, nodding to “my rightful masters, the American people.” With Southern states already seceding, Lincoln talked about brotherhood, and about friendship. “We are not enemies, but friends,” he said. “Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.” For Lincoln, the marriage that mattered was between the North and the South: “A husband and wife may be divorced and go out of the presence and beyond the reach of each other,” he said, “but the different parts of our country cannot do this.” And still the house divided.
Matters began to take a turn in 1889, when Benjamin Harrison, a widower, argued that, because the oath of office was public, the vow he had taken was not to the office but to the people. “The oath taken in the presence of the people becomes a mutual covenant,” Harrison said. “My promise is spoken; ours unspoken, but not the less real and solemn.” Ever since, the swearing-in has had some element of this to it, a certain bouquet, the whiff of a wedding day. ...