Editor’s note: This is the first of three articles in a series reviewing the history of presidential inaugurations in the United States.
Constitutional guidelines for presidential inaugurations are sparse, offering only the date and the words of the oath. Left to Congress and the American people was the creation of what has become a powerful symbol of American democracy. Looking back on some of the more memorable — and often unplanned — moments in past inaugurations shows why they have become a reassuring sense of stability, continuity and permanence to a political system that permits transitions in officeholders and change in policy agendas.
Soon after the First Congress (1789-1791) achieved a quorum, it began the huge task of creating a new government and making arrangements for President-elect George Washington’s historic inauguration ceremony on April 30, 1789. “It was a momentous occasion and an immensely important moment for the nation,” writes historian Stephen Howard Browne. “Never before had a people dared to invent a system of government quite like the one that Washington was preparing to lead, and the tensions between hope and skepticism ran high.”
John Adams’ 1797 inauguration as the second president was one of the most pivotal moments in American history: the first peaceful transition of power. Seated together that day were outgoing President George Washington, newly sworn in Vice President Thomas Jefferson, and Adams. It would be the last time the three Founding Fathers appeared on the same platform. After Adams took the oath of office, according to David McCullough, many in the first-floor House Chamber of Congress Hall in Philadelphia “were weeping, moved by his words, but still more, it seems, by the prospect of Washington’s exit from the national stage.”
Four years later, in the early morning hours of March 4, 1801, Adams quietly left Washington under cover of darkness. He would not attend the inauguration ceremony, the first to be held at the Capitol, later that day for his former friend — now political rival — Jefferson, who would soon replace Adams in the still unfinished presidential mansion. (Only two other presidents — Adams’ son, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Johnson — have chosen not to attend their successors’ inaugurations, in both cases due to animosity between the president and the president-elect.) On the heels of his humiliating defeat in the previous year’s election, Adams set another important precedent, the first peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another.
Quite a different atmosphere existed in 1829. Following his second inauguration, Andrew Jackson held a reception at the White House, but it was not equipped to handle the 20,000 adoring partiers that showed up. The throng, which quickly got out of control, muddied carpets, broke china, got into fistfights over refreshments, ruined furnishings, looted and damaged the mansion. Organizers finally lured people outside by first placing tubs of orange punch thickly laced with whiskey on the lawn. Jackson escaped the mob out a window.
William Henry Harrison was not as fortunate. In 1841, Harrison delivered a 1 hour and 45 minute inaugural address, the longest in history, in the middle of a snow storm, without a hat, gloves or overcoat. Following his 8,445 word speech, he dutifully attended an inaugural parade and three inaugural balls. A month later, Harrison died. Historians long maintained he was killed by pneumonia, caused by prolonged exposure to inclement weather at the inauguration, but recently others concluded he probably died of drinking dirty water. With Harrison’s passing, John Tyler, dubbed “His Accidency” by his detractors, became the first of eight vice presidents that has ascended to the presidency upon the death of his predecessor.
A quarter of a century later, following a wet morning in 1865, as Abraham Lincoln appeared on the inaugural stand, “The sun, which had been obscured all day, burst forth in its unclouded meridian splendor and flooded the spectacle with glory and light,” a journalist wrote. For many, it was “an unexpected omen.” Lincoln then delivered one of the greatest inaugural addresses before 30,000 to 40,000 attendees, many of whom were standing in almost knee deep mud, as he tried to heal the wounds of the Civil War. “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
In 1877, an intense national controversy overshadowed the inauguration. Not until three days before his inauguration was Rutherford B. Hayes, who had lost the popular vote to Samuel J. Tilden, declared the winner of the 1876 presidential election by a single electoral vote (185 to 184). Amid questions raised regarding Hayes’ right to the presidency and because inauguration day fell on a Sunday (a “legal holiday”), incumbent President Ulysses S. Grant feared the consequences of even a brief technical interregnum. That Saturday evening, during a White House state dinner, the president-elect was secretly taken to the Red Room and sworn in. On Monday, without incident, Hayes repeated the oath on the east portico of the Capitol.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave his first inaugural address in 1933, the nation was reeling from the Great Depression. Americans faced not only a depression of the economy, but also a depression of the spirit. In his optimistic and hopeful address he delivered one of most memorable lines in inaugural speech history: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Roosevelt’s remarks were also a declaration of war against economic hardship the nation was facing. His words that day inspired the nation.
There were no grand ceremonies for Gerald R. Ford after Richard M. Nixon, his disgraced predecessor, resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Shortly after noon on Aug. 9, 1974, Vice President Ford in a simple, solemn ceremony in the East Room of the White House, became the first person to take the presidential oath without being elected either president or vice president. After repeating the oath, Ford with simple but moving eloquence addressed the American people and declared, “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.” In his brief speech, Ford also said, “I assume the presidency under extraordinary circumstances. ... This is an hour of history that troubles our minds and hurts our hearts.”
John F. Kennedy, the first president born in the 20th century and youngest to be elected president, delivered one of the most famous lines heard in an inaugural speech. “My fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” The address lifted the spirits of his listeners, but obscured a comedy of errors. During Cardinal Richard Cushing’s inaugural invocation, a short circuit caused smoke to temporarily pour out from the lectern. The poet Robert Frost was unable to read his original composition due to the sun’s bright glare reflecting off the snowy ground. Instead, he recited his poem, “The Gift Outright,” and then told the crowd he dedicated it “to the president-elect, Mr. John Finley.” Luckily, most only remembered Kennedy’s eloquent inaugural address that followed.
In 2009, Barack Obama made history when he became the first African American president. What made the day also memorable was when Chief Justice John Roberts recited the oath incorrectly, leading Obama to mix up his words. To avoid any doubt about the legality of his presidency, the two men redid the constitutionally mandated oath in the White House the next day. Four years later, Obama was again sworn in twice when inauguration day, for only the seventh time, fell on a Sunday. He first took the oath privately in the Blue Room of the White House on Sunday, and then publicly at the Capitol on Monday. Obama is one of only two presidents to be sworn in four times. The first was Franklin Roosevelt because he won four terms.
Stephen W. Stathis was a specialist in American history for the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress for nearly four decades. He is the author of “Landmark Debates in Congress: From the Declaration of Independence to the War in Iraq,” and “Landmark Legislation: Major U.S. Acts and Treaties.” Steve lives in Holladay.