Acknowledging the Past while Considering the Future: Inauguration Day

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Historians are supposed to have the luxury of time to gain perspective and evaluate sources. Right now, however, we are living through a period in which our silence on current debates does not help our students to grapple with the seriousness of events happening around them. So where do we place ourselves in the discussion? Do we focus on the past, the present or the future? 


This week I’m encouraging students to look at inaugurations of the past for symbols of how dramatically different current conditions are in the United States today. A visit to the National Archives website for A Promise to Faithfully Execute the Office: Presidential Inaugurations offers students numerous examples of the way the inauguration as a ceremony has changed over time. Students can also read the original version of George Washington’s first inaugural address and consider transitions of power that took place during other times of national tumult, such as the Civil War. The striking visual differences between today’s inaugural events (with a tiny audience) and those past ceremonies held with millions of Americans bearing witness on the National Mall should strike students as symbolic of the problems our new president will inherit.


Today’s students have the privilege of witnessing a woman being installed as vice president. As the child of immigrants and a woman of color, the success of Kamala Harris should be marked for the amazing significance it holds -- the culmination of centuries of activism by historically under-represented groups of Americans. Many of us are old enough to remember the 1984 presidential campaign and the novelty of Geraldine Ferraro as a vice presidential candidate. When hopeful voters supported the failed Mondale/Ferraro ticket in 1984 could they have imagined it would be thirty-seven years before a woman reached the vice presidency? We can’t celebrate Harris’s victory without remembering all of those women who broke ground before her. Smithsonian Magazine offers students an introduction to Ferraro’s campaign in this piece “The Woman who Paved the Way” (August 10, 2020), which will help them to draw comparisons to Sarah Palin’s run for vice president in 2008 as well as Harris’s successful 2020 campaign.


Finally, we need to encourage our students to look to the future with hope and a healthy dose of realism. Millions of American voters supported Donald Trump’s bid for reelection. The Biden/Harris administration faces the enormous task of reunifying the nation. Suggest that students consider other times in our history when newly-elected presidents have faced seemingly insurmountable challenges. Several journalists and historians have written recently about what the rebuilding of the nation might require. The Boston Globe this week offered an interesting starting point for students to consider the historical challenges ahead, see “Unity without justice is dangerous, historians say. Just look at the Civil War” (January 16, 2021) 


No matter our personal political beliefs, the inauguration of a new president is the perfect time to ask students to assess how the past has affected the present, and in what ways it might continue to influence the future. How are you tackling these challenging historical questions? Please share. 

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.