Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

Presidential Inaugurations: I Do Solemnly Swear

Created October 25, 2010


The Lesson


Jackson swearing in: Presidential Inaugurations: I Do Solemnly Swear

Andrew Jackson swearing in for his first term of office, March, 1829

Thomas Jefferson walked to his first inaugural. When it was over, he returned to his boardinghouse for dinner. All the seats were filled.

Andrew Jackson, having opened the White House to the public—in keeping with a tradition started by Jefferson—was forced to escape a rowdy mob of well-wishers by climbing out the window.

Ronald Reagan took the oath of office privately on the twentieth of January, holding the public ceremony the following day, due to a conflict with the Super Bowl.

Presidential inaugurations have been solemn ceremonies and uninhibited celebrations. They are carefully scripted and they are unpredictable. They reflect tradition and they reflect the moment.

Help your students reflect on what the Presidential inauguration has become and what it has been, while they meet a host of memorable historical figures and uncover a sense of America's past through archival materials.

Guiding Questions

What is required by the Constitution to occur at a presidential inauguration? What other events occur/have occurred at inaugurations?

Learning Objectives

  • Summarize the Constitutional requirements for inaugurations and the oath of office.
  • Identify at least three historical examples of inaugural exceptions or precedents.
  • List other activities that occur at inaugurations.
  • Describe the purpose of an inauguration.
  • State an opinion about what they believe should happen at an inauguration.

Preparation Instructions

Review the lesson plan. Select a variety of archival materials from the various lessons to use in discussions of Presidential inaugurals. Bookmark them if practical. Download and print the archival documents you select and duplicate copies of each for viewing by students.

In an inaugural year, you can coordinate the teaching of this unit with current events. If you use the lessons in the week prior to the inauguration, then, immediately after the inauguration, students can look in the media for examples of the events discussed. Another approach would be to begin the unit the day after the inauguration. Have volunteers bring in news clippings the day after the inauguration. Sharing these would replace the first activity in the first lesson.

The Digital Classroom offers a series of worksheets for analyzing primary source documents, including written documents and photographs, that you may wish to use or adapt to help students in reviewing the materials presented in this unit.

Lesson Activities

Actvity 1. Swearing-In

Every inauguration is a pivotal event, showcasing the orderly transition of power in our democracy. But, what is actually required to happen at a presidential inauguration?

Share with the class the photo "President-elect Nixon taking the oath of office as President of the United States," accessible by a search for the title in the EDSITEment resource Digital Classroom. Identify President Nixon. Ask the class what he is doing. Has anyone in the class had to take an oath (such as the Girl or Boy Scout promise)? What did the oath say? Why take an oath anyway?

The administration of the presidential oath is a very important event. The lessons in this unit are designed to help students understand the origin of the events that take place at a presidential inauguration.

Share with the class the digital copy of Jefferson's letter of March 2, 1801 concerning the inauguration, found in the EDSITEment resource American Memory in the Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 1. General Correspondence. 1651–1827. The letter reads:

I beg leave through you to inform the honorable the House of Representatives of the United States that I shall take the oath which the Constitution prescribes to the President of the United States before he enters on the execution of his office, on Wednesday the 4th, inst. at twelve o'clock in the Senate Chambers.

The motion of the Senate made in response reads:

The President, elect, of the United States having informed the Senate that he proposes to take the oath which the Constitution prescribes to the President of the United States before he enters on the execution of his office, on Wednesday the 4th, instant at twelve o'clock in the Senate Chambers:

Ordered, that the Secretary communicate that information to the House of Representatives that seats be provided for such members of the House of Representatives and such of the public Ministers as may think it proper to attend and that the Gallery be opened to the citizens of the United States.

What can students learn about Jefferson's swearing-in ceremony from the letter and the motion?

Now have the class inspect one of the earliest photos of an inauguration, that of Lincoln's first inauguration, found through a link from American Memory to The Library of Congress's America's Library. (Buchanan's inauguration was actually the first photographed.) What is happening at this ceremony? How is it different from Jefferson's inauguration? What does this indicate is allowed to change about an inauguration?

(NOTE: For interested classes, more information about Lincoln's first inauguration is available at Abraham Lincoln's Inauguration: March 4, 1861.)

Activity 2. Swearing-In Musts

What is required of the swearing-in? Only what is discussed in the Constitution. Review Article II, Section 1 Clause 7:

Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) 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."

and the 20th Amendment to the Constitution:

The terms of the President and the Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th of January ... and the terms of their successors shall then begin.

(NOTE: The text of the Constitution is accessible through the EDSITEment resource Avalon Project at the Yale Law School.)

Do students think the inaugural ceremony should be more scripted, or that more requirements for the inauguration should be created?

Activity 3. Sometimes It's Okay to Swear (or at Least to Affirm): The Oath of Office

What does the oath mean?

There was a good deal of discussion among the Founding Fathers as to what the oath should contain. The Digital Classroom offers an image of Washington's copy of the working draft of the Constitution, in which you can see an early version of the oath—near the end of section X—with Washington's notes of changes proposed by Madison and Mason. (Note also, at the beginning of Section X, the draft proposal to refer to the President as "His Excellency.') How does that early oath differ from the current version?

The President swears to uphold the Constitution. Briefly review the responsibilities of the executive branch specified in the Constitution, Article II, Sections 2–4: "The President shall be Commander-in-Chief" of the armed forces and can "require the opinion, in writing, of the principal officer in each of the executive departments," make treaties, nominate "certain officers" such as ambassadors and judges, and fill vacancies.

The President "may require the opinion, in writing, of the principal officer in each of the executive departments, upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices, and he shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment."

The President is required to give a state of the Union address "from time to time" to Congress and "may, on extraordinary occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in case of disagreement between them, with respect to the time of adjournment, he may adjourn them to such time as he shall think proper." The President can receive ambassadors, execute the law, and "commission all the officers of the United States" military.

The President is removed from office if impeached for, and convicted of, treason, bribery or other high crimes or misdemeanors. Discuss these responsibilities with the class. Now the students know what the President is promising by taking the oath. Should the President be asked to make additional affirmations? What oath would the students create?

Activity 4. Giving/Taking the Oath

Share with the class some archival materials and stories about presidential oath-taking. What traditions have arisen? What precedents have been set? What exceptions have occurred?

Share the picture of the first Capitol inauguration found at the EDSITEment resource American President. It shows Chief Justice John Marshall administering the oath of office to Andrew Jackson, the 7th President (1829–1837) on the East Front portico, establishing a tradition for most future Presidential Inaugurations (Presidents Reagan and Clinton were sworn in on the west side).

Rutherford B. Hayes took the oath in secret in the Red Room of the White House, because the results of the election of 1876 were so contested. The story and a picture are accessible through a link from the EDSITEment resource American Memory.

Now look at photos of President Clinton's inauguration accessible through the link from American Memory's Inaugurations Today Learning Page. Ask students to name some of the differences and similarities between these three inaugurations.

What happens at the swearing-in ceremony? The Constitution does not specify who is supposed to administer the oath to the new President. George Washington was sworn in by Robert R. Livingston, a state official from New York. It later became customary for the chief justice of the United States to administer the oath. Calvin Coolidge was sworn in first by his father, a justice of the peace, at his home in Vermont. Later, Justice Adolph A. Hoehling of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia re-administered the oath of office to him.

The Constitution offers a choice. Presidents may "swear" (on a Bible) or "affirm" their oath (on some other book). Two months before Franklin Pierce became President, his familyhaving already lost two children to typhus—was involved in a train wreck in which their only surviving child, thirteen-year-old Benjamin, was crushed to death. Jane Pierce believed the accident was a punishment from God for her husband's acceptance of the presidency. As a result, Pierce chose to "affirm" his oath of office on a law book rather than the Bible. An image of Pierce's swearing-in is available through The American President. (Most presidents, with perhaps three of four exceptions, have elected to use the Bible in their inauguration.)

The Constitution does not specify who is to hold the book on which the President's hand rests. Lady Bird Johnson began a tradition in 1965 by holding it, as Mrs. Clinton did in 1997, as seen in the photos discussed above.

The Constitution does not specify where the oath should be administered. Except for the inauguration of George Washington, all presidential inaugurations have taken place in Washington, D.C. (other than emergency situations—see the "Extending the Lesson" section for more information).

Nothing more is prescribed about the presidential swearing-in than the date and the administration of the oath; much about the ceremony itself can be changed if desired. Encourage students to devise a swearing-in plan of their own. For example, if your students could plan the inauguration ceremonies, would they stick with Washington, D.C., or choose another location? What building would they choose? The installation used to take place on the east side of the Capitol, but lately has been held on the west side, facing the monuments on the Mall. Maybe students would prefer to hold the inauguration in front of the Washington Monument or some other place of note in the nation's capitol.

Activity 5. Celebrate!

about what else happens at an inauguration other than the administration of the oath. Students might mention the inaugural address, parades, balls, and so on. Why so much celebration? Why is an inauguration so important?

Take a look at some of the archival records of inauguration celebrations listed below and discuss what kinds of activities have preceded and followed inaugurations.

Before the Oath

Following are some archival materials of activities that have taken place before the administration of the oath of office. Choose some to share and discuss with the class.

After the Oath

Poetry, parades, family photos, military salutes, inaugural balls, and fireworks! Share some of the following archival documents of inaugural celebrations with the class.

After students have reviewed the archival materials, discuss inauguration celebrations. How have we celebrated inaugurations? How should we celebrate?

Should the event focus only on the Oath of Office, the pledge to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution? Or, should more happen at the inauguration? How should the President arrive? Who else should be honored? If students could organize the inauguration, what activities would they continue to have? What new activities would students initiate? Who would students invite to their "party"? Would they invite the candidate who lost? Ask students to explain why they made the choices they did.

Extending The Lesson


  •  The inaugural address is central to every inauguration ceremony. In it, the new President reacts to the events of the day and sets the tone for the next four years. Inaugural addresses have contained memorable and forgettable prose. If appropriate to your class, look more closely at the language of some of these addresses. The text of every inaugural address is available through the EDSITEment resource Presidential Speeches.

    Here are some archival materials relating to Presidential addresses you may wish to share with your class:
    • Background information on George Washington's first inaugural address (April 30, 1789), as well as digital copies of the original in Washington's handwriting, are available from American Memory. Search for the exact phrase "George Washington's first inaugural address, 30 April 1789." Note that the date of the inauguration (originally set for March 4) had to be postponed due to inclement weather.
    • A drawing of the inauguration of the ninth president William Henry Harrison in front of the Capitol building is available at The American President. For his inaugural address, Harrison asked Daniel Webster for help; the resulting prose is very ornate, filled with classical allusions. The text of his speech is available through Presidential Speeches.
    • Franklin D. Roosevelt accepted the presidency during the Depression crisis. His words soothed the nation: "So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." An image of the address is available through the Digital Classroom. The text of the speech is available at Presidential Speeches.
    • John Fitzgerald Kennedy stirred the nation with his inaugural address of Friday, January 20, 1961, with such memorable phrases as: "And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country." A handwritten draft of Kennedy's inaugural address is available through the Digital Classroom. The text of the speech is available at Presidential Speeches.
    • The EDSITEment lesson We Must Not Be Enemies uses President Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address as a model for using archival documents to place an inaugural address into its historical context.
  • In an election or inaugural year, track news related to the current election campaign and inauguration plans. What contemporary events resonate with events from the past? The American President has a feature called Election 2000 designed to help teachers and students follow the 2000 presidential election.
  • Inaugural Firsts: This unit mentioned some inaugural firsts, such as the first inaugural held at the capitol (Jackson) and the first First Lady to hold the Bible at the swearing-in (Lady Bird Johnson). Challenge students to discover other inaugural firsts, such as the first inaugural to be broadcast on telegraph, radio, TV, the Internet? The first to be held on January 20th? Can the students discover other firsts?
  • In times of the emergency succession of a vice president, some oaths of office have been administered in unusual circumstances. Students might be interested in researching such events. Information on emergency swearing-in ceremonies is available from Biographies of the U.S. Presidents on The Whitehouse website, accessible through a link from the EDSITEment resource Presidential Speeches. On the right-hand side of the White House page are links to information on some vice presidents who took office upon the death of the President.
  • An Inauguration Day in the Life of a President: Students may be interested in finding out exactly what a President does on inauguration day. Complete records are available for some modern Presidents, including:
    • A sixth grader wrote an account of Truman's inauguration day after researching materials at the Truman Library. January 20, 1949 was written by Colin G., a student at Richardson Elementary in Lee's Summit, Missouri.
    • Lyndon Johnson's presidential diary - starting with what he had for breakfast -- for January 20, 1965, is available by choosing the Digital Classroom's NAIL Digital Copies Search and searching for "January 20 1965 AND diary" (no commas within search phrase).
  • Poems have been featured at inauguration ceremonies. Robert Frost composed a poem, "Dedication," for John F. Kennedy's inauguration. It is available through American Memory by searching for the title and poet. (At the last moment, Frost instead recited "The Gift Outright" from memory.) Maya Angelou ("On the Pulse of Morning") and Miller Williams ("Of History and Hope") read poetry at Bill Clinton's inaugurations.

    Additional archival materials relating to inaugural poems:Students could try writing inaugural poems of their own.
  • Students might be interested in seeing early films of inaugurations. American Memory offers films of Presidents McKinley, T. Roosevelt, and Coolidge's inaugurals. To find them, go to the Collection Finder and choose "Motion Pictures" on the right side of the page; then search for the link "Presidential Inaugurations" on the page that comes up.

    What do students notice as they watch? (As might be supposed, the quality of these films is uneven at best.)


Selected EDSITEment Websites


American Memory
The American President
The Avalon Project at the Yale Law School
Digital Classroom

Presidential Speeches
A useful link at the bottom  leads to The Presidents of the United States at the White House. On the right-hand side of the page are links to information on some vice presidents who took office upon the death of the President.

Truman Digital Archive Project

American Memory's Inaugurations in American Memory

Inauguration Today

America's Library

The Basics

Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • Critical analysis
  • Historical analysis
  • Using archival documents
  • Using primary sources