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An American presidential inauguration might not carry the same drama and suspense that election night sometimes does, but even for those who have been through it all before — Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Ike, Clinton, Obama and others who were re-elected — the inaugural ceremonies offer, at the very least, a chance to set the tone for the four years to come. In fact, several inaugural addresses (FDR’s first, Lincoln’s first and his second, JFK’s in 1961) are now considered among the greatest American political speeches in history — declamations that managed to at-once capture and shape the mood of the era in which they were delivered.
Will any future president ever write and utter more powerful words than those spoken by Lincoln — and addressed, unambiguously, to the secessionist Confederate State of America — on the eve of the Civil War?
“I am loath to close,” he said at his oath-taking in March 1861. “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
But beyond the politics, the occasional poetry, the pomp and the circumstance of these quasi-coronations, there is also the quite obvious fact that for many of the men and women (and sometimes the children) who attend an inauguration, it’s a party. It might not be an intimate party, or a let-it-all-hang-out party; but the opportunity to witness, in person — along with several thousand other folks — the peaceful transition of power in the most powerful country in the world is a rare and even, at times, a moving treat.
It is a spectacle, for sure: but it is a spectacle that, at least in theory, celebrates the notion that the most powerful human being on the planet works for us.
Here, on the occasion of President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, LIFE.com offers a series of pictures — some classic, some that never ran in LIFE — of the inaugural ceremonies from presidents Roosevelt through Nixon. The span of time covered here coincides, more or less, with the years in which LIFE magazine published as a weekly. The photos themselves, meanwhile, offer a fascinating glimpse into the myriad ways that American culture — its politics, fashions, media, etc. — has changed, and how much has remained weirdly, and comfortingly, the same.
— Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com