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The Constitutional Topics pages at the USConstitution.net site are presented to delve deeper into topics than can be provided on the Glossary Page or in the FAQ pages. This Topic Page concerns presidential terms - the beginning and ending of the President's service. The primary sources for information about presidential terms in the Constitution come from Article 2, Section 1, Amendment 12, and Amendment 20.
Note: This page is not about the length of the President's term. That value is set to four years and has never changed. George Washington deliberately set a precedent to serve no more than two terms. This precedent was broken by war-time President Franklin Roosevelt and reestablished in the 22nd Amendment.
In the beginning...
The first President, George Washington, was sworn into office on April 30, 1789. He had been chosen by the Electoral College, by what most people felt was a foregone conclusion, the February before. Why April 30th? The date is certainly not spelled out in the original Constitution. The date was set more by circumstance than anything else.
When New Hampshire ratified the Constitution, word was sent to the Confederation Congress, which then decided, in effect, to dissolve itself. It set the dates for the next series of events to take place under the new Constitution: On January 7, 1789, states would choose electors. On February 4, 1789, the electors would cast their ballots for President. On March 4, 1789, the new legislature would meet to begin business.
Mostly because of poor weather, it was not until April 6, 1789 that a quorum of Congress arrived in New York City to count the electoral votes. Once the counting was done, word of Washington's election was transmitted to him. He received the notice on April 14 and replied that same day, accepting his election. After making ready, Washington left his home at Mount Vernon on April 16. He arrived in New York on the 23rd and basically cooled his heels while the House and Senate worked out the details of the inauguration. The 30th was the date arrived at during those negotiations.
During Washington's first term, the Congress passed a law setting March 4 as the date for future inaugurations. When Washington took his second oath of office, then, it was on March 4, 1793. His first term was almost two months shy of a full four years. Subsequent inaugurations were held on March 4 as a matter of law, until the second inauguration of Thomas Jefferson on March 4, 1805.
What the 12th Amendment says
On June 15, 1804, the 12th Amendment was ratified. One provision of the 12th Amendment finally set in the Constitution itself the date that an incoming President was to take office, although the language by which it does so is indirect:
The person having the greatest Number of votes for President, shall be the President ... if the House of Representatives shall not choose a President whenever the right of choice shall devolve upon them, before the fourth day of March next following, then the Vice-President shall act as President...
The amendment mentions March 4 as the deadline by which the House of Representatives must choose a President if there is no clear winner in the electoral college. The language makes sense when you realize that by this time, only four inaugurations into the new system, March 4 was taken as a given for the day of the inaugural. Though the amendment never specifically says, "the President's term shall begin on March 4," this obtuse reference to the date should be taken as its equivalent.
As to the time of the term's beginning, we must recall that the world moved a little slower 200 years ago. Exact times were not of much concern when it took a month to cross the Atlantic and two weeks for a letter to move from Boston to New York City. The Constitution is clear enough on this one point: the President was not able to perform his duties until the Oath of Office was administered. Should there ever be a question, the exact time of the term's beginning would have to be the time the oath was given, at least until there was a law stating something different.
In 1851, the Senate adopted a resolution that stated that an incoming session began at noon - and the outgoing session expired at that same time. This decision was due to confusion at the beginning of the session that had lingered for some time - was the cut-off at noon on the 4th, or at midnight on the 4th? The question became a minor crisis in 1851 when Jefferson Davis, later to become President of the CSA, refused to do any business after midnight. The start of the President's term was then generally accepted to begin at the same time as the Senate session. Still, however, this was more a matter of common agreement than anything else.
March was chosen for several key reasons. For one, it was important that the President be inaugurated during good weather (or at least when there was more potential for good weather). It also coincided, as noted, with the start of the Congressional session. But it also created a lengthy period of time when an outgoing president was in charge and a new president waited in the wings. These so-called "lame duck" presidents could cause quite some mischief for incoming presidents, particularly if the two were political enemies. To reduce the lame duck period to a reasonably short period, the 20th Amendment was passed in 1933.
The 20th Amendment changes things
In the 20th Amendment, the 20th of January was set as inauguration day. Not only that, noon on that day was set as the exact start time of the term. The amendment is clear: at noon on the 20th, the incoming president's term begins. The president is still required to take the oath of office to perform the duties of the presidency, but regardless of when that oath is taken, at noon, the president-elect is officially the president. Franklin Roosevelt's second term was the first to begin on January 20th, cutting his first term short by six weeks.
The only time we need to worry about the exact time a President's term begins today is if the term begins as the result of a death. However, we now have a fall-back for this situation, too. In 1967, the 25th Amendment was passed that specifically states that when a President dies or is otherwise removed from office, the Vice President becomes President. This is the same sort of cut-off as "noon on January 20" is. The transition is seamless - the new President must take the Oath of Office before he can act as President, but even before the oath is given, he (or she) is the President.
The following is a list of the dates each President was sworn in. It is excerpted from The Constitutional Timeline. Added to this list is the day. Notes follow the list.
Thu 1789/04/30 George Washington Mon 1793/03/04 George Washington Sat 1797/03/04 John Adams Wed 1801/03/04 Thomas Jefferson Mon 1805/03/04 Thomas Jefferson Sat 1809/03/04 James Madison Thu 1813/03/04 James Madison Tue 1817/03/04 James Monroe Mon 1821/03/05 James Monroe (Note 1) Fri 1825/03/04 John Quincy Adams Wed 1829/03/04 Andrew Jackson Mon 1833/03/04 Andrew Jackson Sat 1837/03/04 Martin Van Buren Thu 1841/03/04 William Harrison Sun 1841/04/04 John Tyler (following death of Harrison) Tue 1845/03/04 James Polk Mon 1849/03/05 Zachary Taylor (Note 2) Tue 1850/07/09 Millard Fillmore (following death of Taylor) Fri 1853/03/04 Franklin Pierce Wed 1857/03/04 James Buchanan Mon 1861/03/04 Abraham Lincoln Sat 1865/03/04 Abraham Lincoln Sat 1865/04/15 Andrew Johnson (following death of Lincoln) Thu 1869/03/04 Ulysses Grant Tue 1873/03/04 Ulysses Grant Sat 1877/03/03 Rutherford Hayes (Note 3) Fri 1881/03/04 James Garfield Mon 1881/09/19 Chester Arthur (following death of Garfield) Wed 1885/03/04 Grover Cleveland Mon 1889/03/04 Benjamin Harrison Sat 1893/03/04 Grover Cleveland Thu 1897/03/04 William McKinley Mon 1901/03/04 William McKinley Sat 1901/09/14 Theodore Roosevelt (following death of McKinley) Sat 1905/03/04 Theodore Roosevelt Thu 1909/03/04 William Taft Tue 1913/03/04 Woodrow Wilson Sun 1917/03/04 Woodrow Wilson (Note 4) Fri 1921/03/04 Warren Harding Thu 1923/08/02 Calvin Coolidge (following death of Harding) Wed 1925/03/04 Calvin Coolidge Mon 1929/03/04 Herbert Hoover Sat 1933/03/04 Franklin Roosevelt Wed 1937/01/20 Franklin Roosevelt Mon 1941/01/20 Franklin Roosevelt Sat 1945/01/20 Franklin Roosevelt Thu 1945/04/12 Harry Truman (following death of Roosevelt) Thu 1949/01/20 Harry Truman Tue 1953/01/20 Dwight Eisenhower Sun 1957/01/21 Dwight Eisenhower (Note 5) Fri 1961/01/20 John Kennedy Fri 1963/11/22 Lyndon Johnson (following death of Kennedy) Wed 1965/01/20 Lyndon Johnson Mon 1969/01/20 Richard Nixon Sat 1973/01/20 Richard Nixon Fri 1974/08/09 Gerald Ford (following resignation of Nixon) Thu 1977/01/20 James Carter Tue 1981/01/20 Ronald Reagan Sun 1985/01/20 Ronald Reagan (Note 6) Fri 1989/01/20 George H. W. Bush Wed 1993/01/20 William Clinton Mon 1997/01/20 William Clinton Sat 2001/01/20 George W. Bush Thu 2005/01/20 George W. Bush