Today, January 20, 2014, is the one-year anniversary of the inauguration of Barack Obama for his second term as President. It is also the fifth anniversary of his first inauguration, the ninth of George W. Bush’s second, the thirteenth of his first, etc., etc. In fact with only three exceptions–Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford–January 20 is the anniversary of the inauguration of every President of the United States since Franklin Roosevelt. Before that, however, Presidents used to be inaugurated on March 4. What happened to change it, and why?

The 20th Amendment is one of the true “sleeper” amendments to the Constitution. Almost no one ever mentions it. Sandwiched between two much more famous amendments addressing social issues–the 19th, granting women the vote, and the 21st, repealing Prohibition–the 20th Amendment, or the “Lame Duck Amendment,” was neither the first nor the last amendment to tinker with the mechanics of American government, and indeed just reading it, it seems like a housekeeping measure. Indeed its central text is pretty boring, containing no legal enigmas or grand proclamations about freedom or citizenship:

The terms of the President and the Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January, and the terms of Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3rd day of January, of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin.

The 20th Amendment was proposed by an act of Congress in March 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, but its roots go back to the Civil War. The secession crisis of 1860-61 was triggered by the Southern states’ displeasure at the election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency in November 1860. After dawdling for about six weeks, South Carolina attempted to secede from the Union on December 20, 1860, beginning an avalanche of slaveowning states passing secession resolutions. The President at that time was James Buchanan, who not only believed that he was constitutionally powerless to do anything about secession, but he would be leaving office soon anyway to be replaced by Lincoln. Although Buchanan is usually blamed by historians for sitting around twiddling his thumbs while the Union disintegrated, there were sound political reasons for him declining to jump into the fray and saddle his successor with the consequences, potentially severe, of policy choices he had no hand in creating.

fdr hoover

Franklin D. Roosevelt rides to his inauguration–the last ever on March 4–with an understandably glum-looking Herbert Hoover in 1933.

The problem was that “soon” in 1861 was relative. The dates originally set by the Constitution meant that a candidate elected President in November would have to wait until March–four months later–to take office. During the early months of 1861 the secession crisis careened out of control, ending in a difficult decision for the President whether to resupply Fort Sumter, a federal installation in Charleston Harbor, which presumably would provoke a shooting war with the South. By the skin of his teeth Buchanan managed to avoid making this decision and dumped it into Lincoln’s lap. Of course Lincoln chose to resupply. On April 12, 1861, the Civil War was on.

What does this have to do with the Depression? Well, by 1932, the Democratically-controlled Congress saw quite clearly that a Democrat would likely replace Republican Herbert Hoover in that year’s election. Hoover, incidentally, got blamed for doing nothing about the Depression in much the same way that Buchanan was blamed for sitting on his keister during secession. It wasn’t 1861 or 1789 anymore, though; did an incoming President really need four months to tie up his affairs and get to Washington? Thus, the proposal was made to speed things up. The resolution passed easily through Congress and went to the states.

Virginia was the first state to ratify–only two days after the proposed amendment left Congress. Indeed within a month 9 states signed on, and 9 more acted by the end of 1932. Unfortunately, however, the ratification process was not quite fast enough to affect the 1932/33 election-inauguration cycle. On January 23, 1933, Missouri became the 36th state to ratify, which meant the amendment was in effect–but by its own language it wouldn’t kick in until October 15. I have no idea why this provision was in the amendment, but it was, and it meant one more round before it was effective. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who thoroughly trounced Hoover in the election, became the last President to take the oath of office on March 4, 1933.

This proved to be ironic, because the country could really have used an earlier inauguration in 1933. The Depression worsened in the early months of the year with many banks teetering on the edge of failure. Had Franklin Roosevelt been inaugurated in January he might have declared a bank holiday and begun his New Deal recovery efforts months earlier, which could have saved banks, jobs and homes from financial oblivion. Alas, the states were just too slow.

Congress first convened on January 3 in 1935, the next cycle after ratification. On January 20, 1937, Franklin Roosevelt was sworn in for his second term, and Inauguration Day has been there ever since.