Mar 042013

On March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson was sworn in as President of the United States. It was the first peaceful transfer of power between parties in the United States. It was also the first time that the President took the Oath of Office in Washington D.C. Jefferson took the Oath in the Senate chamber of the partially completed Capitol Building. This chamber, now referred to as the Old Supreme Court Chamber, is shown in the attached photograph. Jefferson appeared as “a plain citizen without any distinctive badge of office.” He did not wear a ceremonial sword as Washington and Adams had done. Adams distraught over the death of his son, and still stinging from his loss to Jefferson, was not in attendance. The chamber was filed to the brim, and Jefferson reportedly delivered his address in such a quiet voice that few of the more than 1000 people in attendance could hear him. After he completed his address, Chief Justice John Marshall administered the Oath of Office to Jefferson. He then returned to Conrad and McMunn’s Boarding House on the south side of Capitol Hill where he had lived as Vice President. Although there was a military salute before and after the ceremony, Jefferson’s Inauguration was a relatively simple affair compared to the pomp and circumstance that now occurs on Inauguration Day.

It is believed that Jefferson wrote his first inaugural address without assistance and only after being elected by the House on February 17, 1801. It is worth reading the address not only to appreciate the humility that Jefferson expresses, but also to read an inaugural speech so very different from the ones of recent memory. Jefferson looked for “guidance and support” from the Congress. He voiced the importance following the will of the majority all the while protecting the equal rights of the minority. He called for citizens with varying opinions to work together with phrases such as: “But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle….Let us, then, with courage and confidence pursue our own Federal and Republican principles, our attachment to union and representative government.” He sought a “wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.” 

Among the principles of government that Jefferson valued were: state governments as the “most competent administrations of our domestic concerns,” preservation of the federal government in “its whole constitutional vigor,” a “jealous care of the right of election by the people,” “labor may be lightly burthened; the honest payment of our debts and sacred preservation of the public faith,” and “the diffusion of information and arraignment of all abuses at the bar of the public reason; freedom of religion; freedom of the press, and freedom of person under the protection of the habeas corpus, and trial by juries impartially selected.”

Take a few moments to read Jefferson’s address which is just over 1700 words in length. It may give you pause as to just how much the views and words of those in power have changed over time. You can read Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address here:


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