For today’s average US citizen, even a decidedly patriotic one, the date of March 4 probably holds little meaning, especially in comparison to July 4. Yet this wasn’t always the case.
While July 4, 1776 – the date of the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence – is deservedly regarded as the birthdate of our nation, the date of March 4, 1789 was just as significant. On that day, the US Constitution went into effect, the former Congress under the Articles of Confederation dissolved itself, and the first session of the very first new US Congress began in New York City (although without a quorum of members). No longer were we simply a loosely-linked confederation of independent States; now we were truly the United States, a “more perfect union”. In short, March 4, 1789 marks the beginning of our country with our form of government as we know it today. If July 4 was our birthday, perhaps March 4 marks our confirmation or bat mitzvah: our coming of age and formal introduction to an inquisitive world still not sure what to make of us.
In addition, March 4 would be the Inauguration Day for our Presidents for the next 150 years, from George Washington’s second term in 1793 all the way until Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first term in 1933. As a result, March 4 has seen more than its share of significant moments, such as the year 1797 when a remarkable (for that time) transition of power took place. On that day, an immensely popular President Washington, who likely could have remained in that position for the rest of his life had he wanted to, instead stepped aside as John Adams became our second President. Washington would not be king, nor even the permanent head of government; he would not be corrupted by power. And it would not require a coup, war, or political intrigue in order to pass the reins of power from one common citizen to another. We take such peaceful transitions of power for granted today; back then it was truly revolutionary. What’s more, in a highly symbolic gesture, once Adams and new Vice President Thomas Jefferson were inaugurated, Washington also stepped aside literally to allow the new leaders to leave the room first; he was, after all, now just a private citizen.
Over the next century and a half, many more March 4 inaugurations would come and go, some marking other important – or not-so-important – firsts. There was the first inauguration in our brand new capital city of Washington, DC (Jefferson in 1801); the first to be followed by a ball (Madison in 1809; tickets: $4); the first to take place while the country was at war (Madison in 1813); the first in which the President wore long trousers instead of knee breeches (J. Q. Adams in 1825); the first in which a “man of the people” would ascend to the presidency (Jackson in 1829); the first in which African-Americans participated (Lincoln in 1865); the first to be recorded on a movie camera (McKinley in 1897); the first in which the President-elect arrived by automobile (Harding in 1921); and the first to be broadcast nationwide by radio (Coolidge in 1925).
The highlight of every inauguration is, of course, the inaugural speech. Some of these would defend past actions, such as Jefferson in 1805 explaining his controversial decision to double the size of the country in one fell swoop by purchasing the vast Louisiana Territory from France. Others would lay out bold new policies, such as Monroe in 1821 telling the European colonial powers that the various peoples of America could and would govern themselves just fine without any more help from across the pond, thank you very much (for the record, the 1821 inauguration wasn’t actually held until March 5 since the fourth was a Sunday).
The tradition of March 4 inaugurations went out in style as the last one to take place on that date was a very memorable one. The country was in the grips of the Great Depression when Franklin D. Roosevelt strove to both calm and embolden the people in 1933: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself …”. In the same speech, FDR would outline his “good neighbor” policy for foreign relations with Latin America.
The 1933 inauguration would be the last to take place on March 4 because after that the 20th Amendment to the Constitution took effect, changing its date to the now-familiar January 20. And with that, the historical importance of March 4 would begin to slowly recede from our nation’s collective memory.
With this context and history of the date of March 4 in mind, one can better understand the import of two of Abraham Lincoln’s best-known speeches, his first and second inaugurals. Both took place on momentous occasions, the first with the nation on the verge of civil war, and the second (150 years ago today) as the nation prepared itself for the difficult task of reuniting after a terribly divisive war. I will turn my attention to those two speeches in subsequent blogs.
Now you will also understand why I felt that March 4 would be a particularly fitting day to inaugurate my new Lincoln blog, “Loath to Close … Still!”
Kevin J. Wood (“Mr. Lincoln”)
March 4, 2015