Watching an Inauguration, especially when given by a new president, fills me with that heady combination of fresh expectations and ingrained memories. My first personal recollection of an inauguration was of Richard Nixon’s in 1972, but as a historical expeditionary I am gifted with the many inaugurals that occurred before I was born. I think back to George Washington, who was talked out of giving his original 73-page, detail-drenched speech in favor of one written by James Madison that was broader and shorter. Instead of directing his legislators with specifics, Washington urged members of congress to lay “the foundations of our national policy” while following “the eternal rules of order and right.”
When John Adams was inaugurated eight years later, people were so struck by the poignancy of a transfer of power such as had never been seen in the annals of mankind, that all but Washington wept. It was, recalled Adams, “a solemn scene indeed.” It was Washington’s last great gift to the nation and, until this year, it had always passed without violence, without bloodshed.
We remember, rightly, the great quotes. FDR and fear, John F. Kennedy and national sacrifice, Abraham Lincoln and our better angels. Whether or not we will remember Biden’s words with similar tenderness is a question for a later time. But for now, the words ring clear when he says, “Here we stand, just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work of our democracy, to drive us from this sacred ground. That did not happen. It will never happen. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever.”