Eagle-eyed ceremony planners no doubt noticed a traditional symbol was missing from the platform at President Biden’s inauguration. The Mace of the Republic which symbolizes the authority of the House of Representatives was not present.
On a typical inauguration day, the House of Representatives goes into session, then recesses to walk as a group to witness the ceremony. The sergeant of arms, carrying the mace, leads a procession of the members of the House and stands behind them holding it throughout the inauguration. This year, due to Covid-19 restrictions, the House did not go in to session on January 20 so the mace was not used in the ceremony.
Crafted in 1841 after the British destroyed our country’s original mace when they burned the Capitol during the War of 1812, the mace has 13 ebony rods representing the 13 original colonies. It is topped by a silver eagle perched on a silver globe. It symbolizes the authority of the House and is always present when the House is in session. It is carried in to the chamber each legislative day and posted on a green marble pedestal on the rostrum to the right of the Speaker. It is occasionally presented in front of an unruly member to restore order.
The tradition of mace as symbols of authority dates to the Middle Ages when mace were used as war clubs. The roots of the practice can be traced as far back as ancient Rome. An academic mace symbolizes the authority invested in the president by a school’s governing body. Much like the Mace of the Republic and the House of Representatives, when the authority is present, the mace is present. This is why the mace is an integral part of commencement exercises, when students are invested of degrees by the lawful authority of the university, and why the mace plays an important ceremonial role in academic presidential inaugurations.
While some schools possess an ancient mace, the article can be created at any time in a school’s history. Maces are often commissioned to commemorate a milestone anniversary or presidential inauguration, frequently incorporating artifacts, precious stones, and rare wood.
When to Use the Mace
The mace is used only on formal academic occasions, such as commencement, convocations, and presidential inaugurations, when participants are in full regalia and the president is involved.
Because the mace is a symbol of presidential authority as the university’s legal representative with the right to govern, it is carried in procession immediately before the president. When the mace is present, the authority of the university is present.
More information about how to use a mace on campus is available in my book, Academic Ceremonies A Handbook of Traditions and Protocol, available from CASE at case.org.