An inauguration 228 years in the making

The presidential inauguration — an occasion this country has celebrated 57 times over — rolls around again Friday.

President-elect Donald Trump will take the same oath of office penned into Article II of the Constitution, repeating the same words George Washington did 228 years ago.

Washington's inauguration was not in Washington, D.C., and it was not on Jan. 20, as Trump's will be Friday. Instead it was at Federal Hall, in New York City, on April 30.

Since 1789, locations have shifted, dates shuffled around, but has the celebration changed?

"The greatest honor that any man may hope for is recognition by his virtuous neighbors and countrymen for service to his nation and the outpouring of support. The crowds that were present on the occasion of my inauguration showed that approbation and were greatly moving," said Colonial Williamsburg's George Washington, portrayed by Ron Carnegie.

Carnegie, seated on a bench on Duke of Gloucester Street Friday, reflected on Washington's inauguration along with Bill Barker, who assumes the role of Thomas Jefferson in Colonial Williamsburg.

Both are historians on their subjects. The men seamlessly transitioned in and out of character, reminiscing about their celebrations and commenting on how the same event, and the election preceding it, played out 200 years later.

Pomp and circumstance

In New York, Washington arrived at the hall in a procession, with many people lining the streets to watch him pass. There was some celebratory cannon fire but he gave no public speech.

"The matter was mostly to the point of business," Carnegie said as Washington.

This year, Trump will be sworn in at the Capitol building in front of dignitaries and ticket holders, with a pre-planned hashtag circulating social media, not quite something the founding fathers could have imagined. Present day festivities include a procession to the Capitol, the swearing-in ceremony, the inaugural address, a luncheon, a parade and a ball.

The U.S. Marine Band will beat out "The President's Own," a tune that's been played at each celebration since the musicians showed up to escort Thomas Jefferson to his ceremony in 1801.

Jefferson's was the first held in D.C. He was sworn in at the yet-to-be completed Capitol building, where inaugurations take place today.

Although there will be more of a to-do with the 2017 ceremony, Barker said the reason has not changed.

"We're celebrating a peaceable transition of office," Barker said. "The celebration is really for all of us, it's not merely the candidate who has won. It's the fact that our system of government wins every time we do this peaceably."

The practice is for all parties involved to be present — the winner and loser of the election, and the outgoing president. President Barack Obama and Trump's Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton will be at the Capitol on Friday.

Barker said people have questioned the stability of the U.S.'s democracy over the last election cycle, but added that the system's flexibility is why it's still here. Usually, the Oval Office alternates which party is in control, and the system "rolls with that," Barker said.

"When the one person's leaving and the other's coming on, who's in control?" Barker said. "There's got to be someone in control, and that's our system. And it ebbs and tides."

Jefferson's inauguration on March 4, 1801, was less celebratory than Washington's 12 years before. While he did have the Marine band, and some people gathered on the streets, Jefferson walked two blocks to the Capitol, took the oath, and gave a short inaugural address before heading straight back to his boarding house.

Jefferson's speech focused on two things: congressional support and healing a widening divide in the country. His first election had resulted in a tie with Aaron Burr, leaving the incumbent John Adams out of the running entirely.

The only reason Jefferson won was because he was seen as less dangerous to the federalists, Barker said.

"First and foremost to mend and heal the wounds and the rifts within our nation, to bring us together again as one people," Barker said as Jefferson. "To remind us all that as an American ... a difference of opinion ought not be a difference of principle."

A divided nation

Headlines around the nation identify great divides threatening the country, whether they be along partisan, racial, gender, religious or socio-economic lines.

Jefferson took over a nation that was bitter following a heated election. Abraham Lincoln was elected as the country was on the brink of war. In James Madison's day, Senators used to brawl in the Capitol building, Carnegie said.

"We act like we have become more contentious than we've ever been," Carnegie said. "That really annoys me every time I hear that because we went to war over political differences in the 1860s, we have been far worse than we are today."

Carnegie quickly rapped his knuckles on the wooden bench underneath him, "We're not that close, we're not there now."

Alexander Hamilton and Jefferson were the leaders of two opposing parties under Washington, yet both wanted Washington to be re-elected in 1792, Carnegie said.

"Hamilton and Jefferson both convinced Washington to stand for the second term because political parties are threatening to destroy the nation, and they're the heads of the two political parties," Carnegie said.

The argument between Jefferson and Hamilton rages on today, Barker said. Hamilton recognized an American aristocracy while Jefferson saw the common man.

He said the challenge now is not against our democracy, but of ensuring an informed electorate.

The fourth Estate

"What I think we're testing right now is what you all represent, and we've tested this before: What is fact and what is fiction? What can the people believe?" Barker said.

Fake news is not new, Carnegie said. He said it's easier to spread because of the internet, but also easier to disprove. And he's not sure why more people don't research and verify claims.

Quoting Jefferson, Barker said the man was an ardent supporter of free press.

"Jefferson's statement, 'Were it up to me whether to have a government with no newspapers and a newspapers with no government, I wouldn't hesitate a moment but to accept the latter,'" Barker said. "Who must be the judge of what they read in the newspapers?

"A difference of opinion should never be a difference of principle, so what is the principle?" Barker asked. "A well informed citizen body."

Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

Inauguration fast facts

According to the Senate inauguration committee and the White House Historical Society:

•William Henry Harrison gave the longest inaugural address during bad weather at his ceremony in 1841 and died of pneumonia a month into office.

•Presidents who have missed the inauguration of their successors: John Adams left in the early-morning hours of Jefferson's first inauguration in 1801 and his son, John Quincy Adams, refused to attend Andrew Jackson's in 1849. Andrew Johnson remained at the White House while Ulysses S. Grant was inaugurated in 1869.

•William Taft is the only president to have both taken the oath of office and administered it — to Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover — because he's the only president to go on to become a Supreme Court justice.

•John F. Kennedy was the last to wear a top hat at his ceremony in 1961 and was the first to have a poet read — 86-year-old Robert Frost read "The Gift Outright."

•Obama's 2009 inauguration set the record for highest attendance at any presidential inauguration and any event in Washington D.C. with an estimated 1.8 million people.

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