January 18, 2017
Commonplace and miraculous. That’s how the inaugural ceremony struck President Reagan in 1981. “The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place, as it has for almost two centuries, and few of us stop to think how unique we really are,” he said in his address. “In the eyes of many in the world, this every-four-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.”
President Reagan’s words are as true today as they were more than three decades ago. On Jan. 20, 2017, during the 58th Inaugural Ceremonies, the world will look on as one administration peacefully passes the torch to the next. For the millions of people who are risking their lives to secure freedom and democracy in their own nations, the peaceful transition of power will indeed appear miraculous.
While inaugural traditions have varied over the years, the peaceful transition between presidential administrations signals that we are united as a people behind an enduring republic, and remains a unique symbol of our constitutional system.
The history teacher in me must note that our nation’s first transfer of power, from George Washington to John Adams, wasn’t terribly remarkable. The real test came in the wake of the extremely divisive, fiercely partisan contest between Adams and his vice president, Thomas Jefferson, in 1800.
In his 1801 inaugural address, Jefferson declared: “We have called by different names brethren of the same principles. We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists.” While the election proved so vitriolic that Adams refused to attend the inauguration, he accepted the results and, in doing so, strengthened the foundation of our young republic. The change in administration from Adams to Jefferson was the first time power transferred willingly, though not enthusiastically, between political parties — but it certainly wasn’t the last.
Since World War II, more often than not, the inaugural ceremonies involved a transfer of power to a different political party. Only once have three elections in a row gone to the same party — Reagan was elected in 1980 and 1984, followed by George H. W. Bush in 1988. Otherwise, our republic has endured throughout the numerous shifts between competing political and ideological visions. It is precisely in that moment — when power transfers peacefully between parties, regardless of how hard fought the election may have been — that America shows the world the meaning, and power, of democracy.
The inaugural moment lends itself to unity. As chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, I look forward to welcoming Americans to the U.S. Capitol for President-elect Donald Trump’s swearing-in on Jan. 20. As we have for over two centuries, we will once again stand together as Americans with all three branches of our government to witness the next commonplace and miraculous event in our enduring republic. Inaugurations of presidents have become moments of celebration — not of victory, but of democracy.
Sen. Blunt is the chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.
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