75th Anniversary of FDR’s Second Inaugural and a New Inauguration Day

January 20, 2012 marks the 75th anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt’s Second Inaugural Address. It also marks the first time that a president was sworn in on January 20th, the date having been moved by the 20th Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Previously, American presidents were sworn in on March 4, the date established by the language of the 12th Amendment. This made sense to the Framers when newly elected presidents and members of Congress had to travel great distances by horse and carriage.

But as American society grew more complex and the nation became more industrialized, the four months between election day and inauguration day were increasingly anachronistic. Outgoing incumbent presidents were powerless lame ducks, and presidents-elect had no authority to influence events. The so-called “Interregnum” between FDR’s election and first inauguration – when the nation remained paralyzed as the Depression deepened and the banking system collapsed – was a perfect example of the crisis this delay could cause.

The Twentieth Amendment was proposed by Congress on March 2, 1932 and was speedily ratified by the necessary three-fourths of the states. But by the amendment’s terms, it did not take effect until October 15, 1933. As a result, FDR became both the last president to take the oath of office on March 4th (1933), and the first president to be inaugurated on the new date of January 20th (1937).

On that cold January day 75 years ago as he stood in the driving rain delivering his Second Inaugural Address, FDR saw “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished” and declared that “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”