March 4, 2010
This is not, I hope, a trivial pursuit. We have now lost the meaning of March Forth! But from 1793 to 1937, Americans recognized the pun--and the date. March 4th was not so much a military order as it was Americans Inauguration Day. Thats why all those Presidents, from George Washingtons second term to FDRs second, were inaugurated on that day.
The long delay between Election Day--by tradition, the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November--and Inauguration Day on March 4th was originally intended to permit an orderly transfer of government. Recall that the Founders plan was for Presidential Electors to be chosen on Election Day. They would then have to have several weeks to assemble in their respective state capitols. Electors still do this, in obedience to the Constitution. It could take weeks in those days for Electors to travel from the mountains of (Western) Virginia to Richmond or for those near Buffalo, New York, to make their way to Albany. Once the Electors had cast their ballots, it would take more weeks to carry those sealed ballots to the nations capital. New York was the first capital (1789-90), followed in a year by Philadelphia (1790-1800), and only after ten years by Washington, D.C. (1800-present).
Once received in the capital, it would be the duty of the Vice President of the United States to open the envelopes and read the results to the Congress. A few times in our history, this responsibility would fall upon a man who actually lost the recently concluded Presidential campaign. These included John C. Breckenridge in 1861, who lost to Abraham Lincoln (and who later became a Confederate Brigadier General), Richard Nixon in 1961, who lost to John F. Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey in 1969, who lost to Nixon, and Albert Gore, who lost to George W. Bush in 2001.
Very soon, the Founders ideas of the Electoral College were superseded by party politics. Instead of meeting in their state capitols to deliberate and make their choices for President and Vice President, the Electors soon merely registered the will of the voters of their states. Rare it is for an Elector to buck the judgment of the voters of his state. The two most recent of these faithless Electors were State Rep. Mike Padden (R) of Washington State in 1976 and an unnamed Minnesota Elector in 2004. Mike Padden was elected as a Gerry Ford Elector. But everyone knew that Jimmy Carter had already won the `76 election. So Padden thought it was safe to register his true opinion and he voted for Ronald Reagan. Paddens one Electoral Vote cast for the former California Governor was just the first rogue elephant in what would soon become an elephant stampede of 1015 Reagan Electors. Now, that unnamed Minnesota Kerry Elector in 2004 also knew that he or she would not upset the election results. That faithless Elector voted for John Edwards. Maybe thats why this one chooses to remain anonymous.
So, why isnt March 4th still Inauguration Day? We had had two near-brushes with disaster in the long interregnum of nearly five months. First, 1860-61 was called the Secession Winter. President-elect Abraham Lincoln had no authority to take any actions before taking the oath of office. He could not stop state secession conventions from meeting and voting to take their states out of the Union. We came perilously close to losing the country in that dangerous winter.
Then, in 1932-33, President Hoover had been almost completely discredited (Hoover lost 42 of the 48 states to Franklin D. Roosevelt). Hoovers attempts to gain President-elect Roosevelts cooperation with his lamest of lame duck administration were rebuffed by the New York Governor. Not only did they no longer trust one another, FDR treated the increasingly desperate Hoover like a flailing, drowning man. Hoover had good reason to be desperate as banks failed all over the country and he had to order the U.S. Army to ride postal mail trucks to prevent armed bands from stealing the mails!
Thats why Congress drafted the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment mandated that the new Congress should convene on January 3rd after the November elections and the President and Vice President should be sworn in at noon on January 20th. Advances in transportation no longer required such a long waiting period between election and taking office. This so-called Lame Duck Amendment was quickly ratified.
We no longer start our Presidential administrations with a brisk march forth, but we do recognize another important tradition. If Inauguration Day falls on a Sunday, the swearing-in takes place privately, in the White House, and the ceremonial oath-taking, with its parades, bands, cannons, and Inaugural Balls, is postponed until Monday. That Sunday exception is interesting. It applied to Monroe (1821), Taylor (1849), Hayes (1877), Wilson (1917), Eisenhower (1957) and Reagan (1985). Today, we watch the Super Bowl on Sunday. Many of us go to the Mall or to brunch on a Sunday. Why do you think our leaders still hesitate to inaugurate a new President on a Sunday? And how much longer will we do so?