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Inaugurations: New Exhibit at the Library of Congress

From the Washington Post (1-7-05):

Top hat in hand, a beaming Woodrow Wilson is standing next to a smiling William Howard Taft. Captured for posterity by a photographer, the usually dour-looking Wilson seems to be enjoying this moment on March 4, 1913, the day of his first inauguration.

Inaugurations are pleasant days for presidents and their supporters, and most of the time the hostilities of the campaign and the disappointment of the opponents are muted or, in contemporary times, fenced behind the barricades. Generally, the protocol is to let the winner have his day.

The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., has mounted a special exhibition titled "I Do Solemnly Swear" on several inaugurations that opened to the public Thursday. It shows how the day has been marked by lofty speeches and much pomp, and it underscores that presidential inaugurations are an American invention.

"There is no model for this," says Marvin Kranz, a manuscript historian and inaugural specialist at the library. "George Washington set the precedent and it's been working ever since."

Every four years the inauguration gives the capital's archival institutions a chance to dust off some favorite pieces. This time the selections range from rare pieces of history to artifacts that are important only because of their connection to the first family.

Washington early on recognized the significance of this new ritual. The library has a letter he wrote to Henry Knox, later his secretary of war, ordering a suit of "plain brown cloth" with buttons.

Both the library and the National Archives have copies of Washington's first inaugural address. The library keeps what is believed to be the paper Washington read from in a special vault and is not displaying it this year. The Archives has another copy that Washington made. Because of its fragility, the Archives is exhibiting only the first and last pages of the eight-page document that bears his distinctive signature.

"He took the trouble of copying it and was aware of the momentous nature of the day," says Stacey Bredhoff, a senior exhibit curator at the Archives....