December 29, 2000
Past Inaugurations are Featured in the National Archives Quarterly Publication
College Park, MD. . .Although there is much controversy and much history surrounding the passing of the Presidency this month from William J. Clinton to George W. Bush, it will be done in customary fashion-a swearing in at the Capitol, followed by a parade and lavish celebrations. This is in sharp contrast to the nine times in American history when Presidential power passed in unusual ways.
In "Abrupt Transition," the cover article in the Winter issue of Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration, C. L. Arbelbide, a Washington historian and writer, tells of how nine of our Presidents have ascended to the office under usual circumstances, usually upon the death of their predecessor. Arbelbide writes of mad scrambles to find Bibles, oath-takings in remote locations, and continuing controversy over Presidential succession.
For more than 30 years, Prologue has been sharing with readers the rich resources and programs of the National Archives, its regional archives, and the Presidential libraries. From the First Continental Congress to the conflict in Vietnam, Prologue tells the story behind the story, revealing many intriguing and little-known details from our nation's past. In every issue, there are thought-provoking and entertaining articles-based on research in the National Archives' magnificent holdings-written by noted historians, archivists, and experts recognized in their fields. The Washington Post said, "Prologue . . . can be regarded quite literally as an invitation for further study. It is also consistently absorbing reading."
In "Abrupt Transition," Arbelbide writes that in 1841, Vice President John Tyler didn't even know that President William Henry Harrison was ill until a messenger arrived to inform him Harrison was dead and he was President. And Tyler at first didn't see a need to take the Presidential oath, feeling that his Vice Presidential oath was sufficient. The author also tells of Chester Arthur's fear of an interregnum because there was no one in the line of succession when he took the oath. And she describes the middle-of-the-night swearing in of Calvin Coolidge by his father at a remote Vermont homestead.
"In the worst of circumstances," Arbelbide writes, "administering the oath of office continues to publicly demonstrate to the nation and the world-especially to nondemocratic governments-that no matter the surrounding circumstances, the smooth transfer of Presidential power continues uninterrupted."
The Winter Prologue doesn't overlook normal Presidential inaugurations. In our pictorial portfolio, "Peaceful Transition of Power: American Presidential Inaugurations," Maureen MacDonald, a writer and editor at the National Archives, has assembled photographs from its holdings of Presidential inaugurations, with an emphasis on Presidents Hoover through Clinton.
Also in the Winter Prologue are several other articles of note:
"Garrison's Constitution: The Covenant with Death and How It Was Made," by Paul Finkelman, examines the debates in the Constitutional Convention that touched on slavery in America. Congressional representation, taxation, trade, and even the electoral college were all heavily influenced by the positions of delegates from the southern states. Finkelman, a professor of law at the University of Tulsa, argues that because the issue of slavery was so closely tied to the creation of the Union, "only after a civil war of unparalleled bloodshed and three constitutional amendments could the Union be made more perfect, by finally expunging slavery from the Constitution."
Walter B. Hill, Jr., surveys National Archives resources in "Living with the Hydra: The Documentation of Slavery and the Slave Trade in Federal Records." Hill, an archivist and subject specialist at the National Archives, discusses records of the early Congresses, the Navy Department, the State Department, the Attorney General, and others that document enforcement of fugitive slave laws, restriction of the international slave trade, slave emancipation, and the final destruction of slavery.
This issue's Genealogy Notes feature touches on a valuable resource for future genealogists. "Myths and Realities about the 1960 Census," by Margaret O. Adams and Thomas E. Brown, corrects the oft-repeated myth that substantial data from the 1960 census has been lost because the hardware to read the tapes is obsolete. They assure us that when the census is opened in 2032, researchers will be able to find what they need. Brown is manager of archival services and Adams is a reference program manager with the National Archives Electronic and Special Media Records Services.
Prologue can be purchased in the Museum Shop at the National Archives Building in Washington and the Publications Shop at the Archives in College Park, MD. A 1-year subscription to Prologue costs $16. To begin your subscription, call 301-837-1800 or 1-800-234-8861, or print out the order form found on the web site at http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/.
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