By Stephen Kaufman
Washington — For nearly 80 years, January 20 has been the day of America’s presidential transition. Because the 20th falls on a Sunday in 2013, President Obama will take the oath of office January 20 in private, and again publicly on January 21 as part of the now familiar inaugural proceedings.
But until 1933, the relatively warmer day of March 4 was the established time of transition, marking the first day the U.S. Congress convened in 1789 and a government began to function under the rules of the newly adopted U.S. Constitution.
The 17 weeks between November elections and a March 4 inauguration were convenient for 18th and 19th century officials, who often relied on primitive means of transportation to reach Washington from their home districts. It was also a 17-week “lame duck” session in which defeated or retiring members of Congress could continue their work, despite the fact that they were no longer answerable to the voters back home.
LAME-DUCK INACTIVITY DURING NATIONAL CRISES
It wasn’t just improved traveling conditions that ended up moving Inauguration Day. Lengthy lame-duck sessions during times of national crisis were a recipe for indecision and inaction while the country waited for a new president and a new Congress to take charge and lead.
During the 17-week period between President Abraham Lincoln’s election and his March 4, 1861, inauguration, seven U.S. states seceded from the United States. Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan, agreed with the incoming president that states did not have the right to secede, but he also believed it was illegal for the government to reunite the country by force. As a result, by the time of Lincoln’s inauguration, the U.S. government had done little to counter the establishment of the independent Confederate States of America and prepare for what was to become the deadliest war in American history.
In another lame-duck period between Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election and his inauguration on March 4, 1933, the United States was seen to be leaderless for 17 weeks while its economy remained stricken, thousands of banks were bankrupt and one in four Americans looked for work at the height of the Great Depression.
Many prominent politicians and organizations during the 19th and early 20th centuries saw the danger of having such a long period of time between elections and a government’s transition, but any change required an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a process that was made difficult by design.
Opposition to a long lame-duck session also developed because lawmakers who were no longer accountable to the voters were able to decide the winners of the presidential and vice presidential elections in the event that no candidate won a majority or the electoral vote was tied.
The effort to shorten lame-duck sessions received renewed public attention immediately after the 1922 election when President Warren Harding tried to force Congress to pass a bill subsidizing the construction of cargo ships, despite intense opposition by organized labor and farm interests and the fact that American voters had recently rejected candidates who supported Harding’s idea.
In response, Senator George Norris of Nebraska proposed what would eventually become the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, which called for the new Congress to convene on January 3 and for the president to be inaugurated on January 20.
It would take Norris 10 years to get his amendment approved by both the Senate and the House of Representatives, and then ratified by three-fourths of the U.S. states. President Franklin Roosevelt’s first inauguration in 1933 was the last held on March 4. That ineffective lame-duck session during the Great Depression no doubt played a role in speeding up the amendment’s ratification.
Under the 20th Amendment, the newly elected 113th U.S. Congress will begin its work on January 3, 2013, including the task of confirming Cabinet officials and judges President Obama has nominated.
JANUARY 20 NOT IDEAL FOR INAUGURAL SPECTATORS
Ratification of the 20th Amendment significantly reduced the duration of lame-duck sessions and aided the American tradition of peaceful political transition, but it also forced presidential inaugurations to be held in the dead of winter.
On average, January is Washington’s coldest month, with temperatures ranging from minus 2 to 6 degrees Celsius. For President Obama’s first inauguration on January 20, 2009, an estimated 1.8 million people stood in the cold for hours to see the oath of office, listen to his inaugural address and watch the Pennsylvania Avenue parade from the U.S. Capitol to the White House. Much to their discomfort, the temperature never rose above minus 1 degrees.
But the previous inauguration date had its dangers too.
On March 4, 1841, President William Henry Harrison was sworn in during an overcast day with cool winds and a temperature of 9 degrees. Refusing to wear a hat, coat or gloves, the new president delivered a two-hour inaugural address — the longest in U.S. history — and is believed to have caught a cold.
He developed pneumonia, and, on April 4, Harrison died, making his presidency the shortest in American history.