A president becomes empowered as president, not on Election Day, or even after the Electoral votes are counted, but on Inauguration Day after they are administered the oath of office (Article II of the U.S. Constitution).
On April 30, 1789, George Washington was inaugurated in New York City as our first president. Washington was scheduled to be inaugurated on March 4, however weather prevented Congress from being able to make quorum, and thus the beginning of our nation under the original Constitution was delayed almost two months.
Interestingly, the text of the original Constitution did not specify a presidential Inauguration Day, but merely left the matter up to Congress. March 4 became the traditional Inauguration Day until 1937 after the passage of the twentieth amendment. One must wonder at the Constitutional crisis that would have occurred (prior to the twentieth amendment) if a Congress had decided to indefinitely postpone Inaugurating, or even counting the Electoral votes, after a presidential election (which, under the Constitution, is also set by Congress).
On March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson was the first president inaugurated in Washington, D.C., our new federal capital. After New York, Philadelphia had become our nation’s capital. Though, in order to appease Southern slave holders fearing a northern capital would be inordinately influenced by Northern Abolitionists, the nation’s capital was moved south to its current location.
Inauguration was initially held inside the House and Senate chambers of the Federal Congress. However, in 1817 a fight broke out between the Senate and House of Representatives over which specific chairs should be used in the inauguration (and we thought our current Congressional politics were petty). James Monroe, the newly elected president, struck a grand bargain and began the tradition of holding the inauguration outside, in front of Congress.
The outdoor inauguration would prove fatal in 1841. With great hubris, the newly elected President William Harrison decided to ride on horseback, without a coat, to his inauguration – despite the winter weather. Harrison then delivered the longest inauguration speech in American history — a two-hour-long oration, which led to the shortest Presidency in American history as Harrison subsequently caught pneumonia and died 31 days later, making John Tyler president
Tyler’s presidency created a bit of a Constitutional crisis, as the original Constitution never that the vice president would become president if the sitting president died in office. Many argued that John Tyler was still a vice president who merely held the powers of a president.
Abraham Lincoln was elected president in November of 1860, but James Buchanan would still be president until Lincoln’s inauguration four months later on March 4, 1861. Knowing that Buchanan would not intervene, Southern states opportunistically began illegally seceding from the union, thus beginning the Civil War before Lincoln could become president.
The vague nature of Article II of the Constitution with regard to when the president actually becomes the president through the inauguration was finally settled in the twentieth amendment, which took effect before Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second term began on Jan. 20, 1937.
The twentieth amendment specified that the elected president would become president through inauguration at noon on Jan. 20, two months, instead of four, after the presidential election. The twentieth amendment also clarified the presidential secession plan.
On Friday, Jan. 20, 2017 at noon, Donald J. Trump will become America’s 45th president, but only the 44th person to become president, as Grover Cleveland was elected to two non-consecutive terms as the 22nd and 24th president.
Whether you are happy, upset, or indifferent about the results of the 2016 Presidential Election, with the passage of another Inauguration Day in our shared American history, we have much for which to be grateful. Human history repeatedly shows us that the transition of power from one person or regime to another is often marred by great violence, bloodshed and loss of life.
In our system of government, the rights of those ceding power are still protected and preserved by our Constitution. Those that lost on Election Day or were not happy with the results have the opportunity to re-engage in the political system and compete in the next set of regularly-scheduled elections. In just a few short years, the next presidential election cycle will begin.
In our nation, we the people are empowered to hold the new administration accountable. We, the people, will decide if President Trump is rewarded with another four-year term in office or whether a new man or woman will be inaugurated president in 2021.