Sunday, January 21, 2007

January 20, 1937:

The First January 20 Inauguration

Among other things, the 20th amendment to the US Constitution fixed January 20 as the beginning and end of each presidential term, a change effective for the first time in 1937 at the beginning of President Roosevelt and Vice President Garner’s second terms. Previously inaugurations were held on March 4, so the change cut FDR’s first term by six weeks – not much of a difference considering how long he eventually served.

Not all was well between the president and the vice president at that moment. “The first significant fissure appeared because of disagreements between Roosevelt and Garner on how to handle the sit-down strikes that closed the automotive industry at the end of 1936,” wrote J. Kent Calder in The Vice Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary (1998). “…Though Roosevelt disagreed with the method, he refused to denounce the strikers, whose right to unionize the Wagner Act protected. Garner, on the other hand, saw the strikes as illegal… In January 1937, the president and the vice president exchanged heated words over the sit-down strikes, and thereafter Garner worked behind the scenes to oppose his boss.”

Of course, that didn’t affect the inauguration ceremonies on January 20. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes – who came within a whisker of taking a presidential oath himself in 1917, barely losing out to Woodrow Wilson – administered the oath to FDR. The president’s second inaugural speech isn’t especially remembered, certainly nothing like his first, probably because the second didn’t come at such a dramatic moment as March 4, 1933, and also because it isn’t as good. Still, the speech does have some interesting aspects, such as this personification of abstractions:

"Many voices are heard as we face a great decision. Comfort says, 'Tarry a while.' Opportunism says, 'This is a good spot.' Timidity asks, 'How difficult is the road ahead?'

"...If I know aught of the spirit and purpose of our Nation, we will not listen to Comfort, Opportunism, and Timidity. We will carry on."

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