The Not-So-Lame Amendment

Today’s post comes from Hailey Philbin in the National Archives History Office. 

Joint resolution proposing the 20th Amendment to the United States Constitution, March 2, 1932. (National Archives Identifier 1410754)

The 20th Amendment is often referred to as the Lame Duck Amendment. It was passed by Congress on March 2, 1932, and ratified on January 23, 1933.

The amendment changed the date of the Presidential inauguration from March 4 to January 20. It also outlined the course of action if there is a change in President-elect, and when Presidential and congressional terms begin and end.

The delegates at the Constitutional Convention did not address election, commencement, and inauguration dates in the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution only requires that Congress meet once a year to discuss the condition of the country.

The Confederation Congress picked March 4, 1789, as the day it handed off power to the new government under the Constitution.

George Washington, the President with all the precedents, ironically had few elements of his inauguration repeated. Because Congress failed to reach a quorum on March 4, Washington was sworn in as the first President of the United States on April 30, 1789.

George Washington’s First Inaugural Address, April 30, 1789. (National Archives Identifier 1634180 )

And unlike every other President with the exception of John Adams—who was sworn-in in Philadelphia—Washington did not take the oath of office in the city that would bear his name, but instead on the steps of the Federal Hall in New York City.

Every Presidential inauguration from John Adams to Franklin Roosevelt’s first inauguration was carried out on March 4 (or on a few occasions March 5). With elections in November, there was a long lame duck period for outgoing Presidents and members of Congress.

The lame duck period is unneeded in the fast-moving 21st century political world, but the technological landscape of the 18th and 19th centuries moved in slow motion in comparison.

Presidents-elect in the late 1700s and early 1800s needed the months until the inauguration to get their lives in order and prepare their homes and family for a new life. These elected men were hired for the most powerful job in land, but they could not master time and transportation. Traveling to the nation’s capital by horse and buggy was certainly no metro ride.

As technology and transportation became more accessible, the lapse in time between election day and the inauguration became less necessary. In fact, the delayed date of inauguration soon became a burden.

The Post-Season Parade, March 5, 1915. (National Archives Identifier 1693335)
“The Post-Season Parade,” March 5, 1915. Cartoon by Clifford Berryman. (National Archives Identifier 1693335)

Abraham Lincoln could not change his home address to Pennsylvania Avenue until March 4, 1861. However, the time between his election and inauguration—James Buchanan’s lame duck period—was also a time of severe tension between the North and the South.

South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860, and several more states soon followed. Lincoln needed to be able to deal with the crisis of a crumbling nation, but he was hampered because he was not yet President. By the time Lincoln finally took office, much of the South had succeeded from the Union.

Another example of the burden of the lame duck period can be found in FDR’s race for his first inauguration.

Roosevelt was elected in November 1932 to replace Herbert Hoover and his failing economic policies during the early years of the Great Depression. But FDR could not implement his ideas until March 4, 1933. FDR had to sit on his New Deal and wait impatiently to try to save the American economy.

Although the lame duck period was most definitely a brick wall for a President-elect and his policies, some Presidents used that time to their advantage.

The show-cause order served on James Madison, Secretary of State, in Marbury v. Madison, 1802. (National Archives Identifier 1497352)

John Adams had been voted out of office and was being replaced by his favorite enemy, Thomas Jefferson. Lame duck Adams wanted to keep his ducks in a row and made sure he did everything he possibly could to stretch his political power.

In the waning days of his administration, Adams made his famous “midnight appointments” in an attempt to fill as many judgeships as possible. Since so many were literally in the last minutes of his term, not all the commissions were delivered by the time the new administration took office.

Thomas Jefferson’s incoming Secretary of State, James Madison, was meant to deliver the commission to several appointments, including William Marbury for Justice of the Peace of the District of Columbia, but he did not. The ensuing dispute led to the Supreme Court’s landmark Marbury v. Madison decision.

The 20th Amendment was ratified in 1933 and went into effect the following election. FDR was sworn in on March 4 for his first term, then on January 20 for his next three.

Postponing the Presidential inauguration had a purpose in a world without cars, planes, and computers. As time went on, however, four months of an inactive President ready to set his own policies became a ridiculous idea. The country and all its functions didn’t stop, but the executive branch would freeze for four months before the 20th Amendment was passed.

Now, because the 20th Amendment, Presidents can begin doing their work as soon as they are elected instead of waiting impatiently to exercise their political power.

Interested in more amendments? The National Archives is opening the exhibit, “Amending America” on March 11, 2016, in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery in Washington, DC. The exhibition runs through September 4, 2017.

President Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt travel to FDR’s first inauguration in Washington, DC, March 4, 1933. (National Archives Identifier 196763)

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