Amending America: The 20th Amendment, January 20, and Presidential Inaugurations

Today’s post comes from Reagan Library Education Department staffer Brett Robert.

Later this month on January 20, if you follow the Reagan Presidential Library on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram , or any of the other Presidential Libraries for that matter, you might notice something: every President since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s second term has been sworn into office on January 20.  Those of you with perfect recall for dates, might remember, however, that President Reagan’s second term inauguration happened on January 21, 1985, right?  How did that happen?  What about all the Presidents of the United States before Franklin Delano Roosevelt, when were they sworn in?

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Warren Berger swore in President Reagan for his second term in this public ceremony on January 21, 1985, as President Reagan’s wife Nancy Reagan looks on.  C26877-14

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inauguration on March 4, 1933 was the last inauguration to take place on March 4, the date of almost all inaugurations 1789-1933.  The Constitution of the United States of America does not actually specify an inauguration date in its original text.  This article from the Senate Historical Office explains how the Congress of the Confederation, the previous government of the United States, chose March 4, 1789 as the date on which it transferred power to the new Constitutional government of the United States.  From then on, March 4 was the date on which Presidential, Congressional, and Senatorial terms began, with a few exceptions.  George Washington’s first inauguration happened on April 30, 1789 because there was no quorum in Congress.  Otherwise the oath of office was administered on March 4, unless the new President was replacing a President who died in office.


President Herbert Hoover and President Franklin Roosevelt riding to the inauguration of Roosevelt, March 4, 1933.  This was the last March 4 Presidential inauguration. (National Archives ID: 4849330)

During the 18th and 19th centuries it made sense to conduct inaugurations in the spring following elections the previous autumn.  Members of Congress and Presidents-elect needed time to get their affairs in order, and traveling during the winter months was quite difficult.  By the end of the 1920s, this was no longer the case.  Inventions like the telegraph had sped up communication, and therefore the speed of business.  The affairs of a farm or a law firm could be tied up more quickly and allow an incoming President to take office expeditiously.  After doing so these new officers and officials could speed along paved roads at speeds of 20, 30, or even 40 miles per hour to get to the train station.

While the old problems with transportation were gone and new technology allowed business to be carried out more quickly, an old problem remained.  Article I, Section 4, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution states:  “The Congress shall assemble at least once in every Year, and such Meeting shall be on the first Monday in December, unless they shall by Law appoint a different Day.”  This meant that Congress was meeting for long “lame-duck” sessions, wherein an outgoing administration that perhaps no longer had the mandate of the public was making laws.  This excellent blog post from Hailey Philbin of the National Archives History Office details a few times in history when these lame-duck sessions presented problems for incoming administrations who had to watch helplessly as situations arose that they were powerless to affect.  Most famously, several states seceded from the Union after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, but before he took office March 4, 1861.

It was these concerns that led to 20th Amendment to the Constitution.  The 20th Amendment is one of the longer constitutional amendments, with 6 sections.  The Amendment was written by Senator George Norris, a progressive Republican from Nebraska who was later featured in John F. Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage.  On March 2, 1932 Norris’ bill was passed by Congress and became a proposed Amendment.  It missed being ratified in time for Roosevelt’s first inauguration, but it became official on January 23, 1933 when Georgia, Missouri, Ohio, and Utah ratified the Amendment, pushing it past the three-fourths majority of states that must ratify an Amendment.

The full-text of the 20th Amendment reads:

Section 1.
The terms of the President and the Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January, and the terms of Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3d day of January, of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin.

Section 2.
The Congress shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall begin at noon on the 3d day of January, unless they shall by law appoint a different day.

Section 3.
If, at the time fixed for the beginning of the term of the President, the President elect shall have died, the Vice President elect shall become President. If a President shall not have been chosen before the time fixed for the beginning of his term, or if the President elect shall have failed to qualify, then the Vice President elect shall act as President until a President shall have qualified; and the Congress may by law provide for the case wherein neither a President elect nor a Vice President elect shall have qualified, declaring who shall then act as President, or the manner in which one who is to act shall be selected, and such person shall act accordingly until a President or Vice President shall have qualified.

Section 4.
The Congress may by law provide for the case of the death of any of the persons from whom the House of Representatives may choose a President whenever the right of choice shall have devolved upon them, and for the case of the death of any of the persons from whom the Senate may choose a Vice President whenever the right of choice shall have devolved upon them.

Section 5.
Sections 1 and 2 shall take effect on the 15th day of October following the ratification of this article.

Section 6.
This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States within seven years from the date of its submission.

While the first and second sections settled the matter of inaugural dates and eliminated extensive lame-duck sessions by also changing the required Congressional assembly from December to January, the 20th Amendment had one major failure.  Sections 3 and 4 attempted to close loopholes around Presidential and Vice Presidential succession which were to be solved in the 1960s by the 25th Amendment, written by Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana.  Questions of Presidential succession are also why the 20th Amendment stipulates that Congress is sworn in on January 3.  If the electoral college failed to elect a President, or the election became the responsibility of Congress for any other reason, the architects of the 20th Amendment wanted to ensure that the incoming Congress, with its fresh public mandate, would do the choosing.

So, back to President Reagan.  Why was the picture at the top taken on January 21, 1985 if the 20th Amendment requires new Presidents be sworn in on January 20?  January 20, 1985 was a Sunday, so on that day President Reagan was officially sworn in for his second term in a private ceremony.  The public inauguration celebrations took place Monday January 21, 1985.  Since it was the coldest inauguration day in history, at only 7 degrees Fahrenheit in Washington, D.C., the public swearing-in ceremony was moved inside to the rotunda of the Capitol Building, as seen in the picture.

National Archives ID: 1410754

For Teachers and Students:

Short Answer Questions:

  1. What was the main problem the 20th Amendment solved?
  2. How did the 20th Amendment solve that problem and which two sections of the 20th Amendment accomplished this?
  3. What problem was not solved by the 20th Amendment?
  4. Why do you think sections 5 and 6 were included?  What is the purpose of each of these sections?

Research Questions and Prompts:
What did the Constitution say about Presidential succession before the 20th Amendment? Was this a problem when Presidents died in office?  How did the United States government handle Presidential succession before the 20th Amendment?

How did the 20th Amendment fail to fix the problem of Presidential and Vice Presidential succession?  What did the 25th Amendment do that the 20th Amendment did not?

Explore a time before the 20th Amendment when a lame duck session created problems in the United States.  Examine the actions of the President-elect, the outgoing lame duck President, the lame duck Congress, and the Congress-elect.  Discuss how they handled the crisis or problems in front of them and consequences of their actions or their inability to act.

Vocabulary Terms and Important People and Institutions:
Congress of the Confederation
Franklin Roosevelt
George Washington
George Norris
Birch Bayh
Abraham Lincoln
Ronald Reagan

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