Editor’s noteThis is the second of three articles in a series reviewing the history of presidential inaugurations in the United States. Read the first article here.

Presidential inaugurations have been steeped in tradition and ceremony since the nation’s first president, George Washington, took the oath of the office on April 30, 1789. As far as the Constitution is concerned, however, all that is required is the 35-word presidential oath. Everything else relating to the day, including the weather, has evolved and changed over time. 

From Washington to Donald Trump, here are some interesting firsts and notable facts about the history and traditions of Inauguration Day.

‘I do solemnly swear’: Memorable moments from 230 years of presidential inaugurations

Inauguration Day wasn’t always held on Jan. 20. More presidents have been inaugurated in March than in January. Until the 20th Amendment moved Inauguration Day from March 4 to Jan. 20, only one of the first 36 inaugurations (George Washington’s on April 30, 1789) was not held in March. With Joe Biden’s inauguration, 21 will have been held in January. 

When Inauguration Day has fallen on a Sunday, presidents have usually first been sworn in privately that day, and the public ceremony moved to Monday. There have also been the unanticipated ceremonies when a vice president acceded to the presidency following the death or resignation of a chief executive. Three of those oath-takings occurred in April (Tyler, A. Johnson, Truman), one in July (Fillmore), two in August (Coolidge, Ford), two in September (Arthur, T. Roosevelt), and one in November (L. Johnson).

Presidents have not always taken the oath in Washington. Before Washington, D.C., became the nation’s capital in 1800, both Washington and John Adams took the presidential oath elsewhere. Washington was sworn in for his first term on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City (1789) and second term in the Senate Chamber of Congress Hall in Philadelphia (1793). John Adams took the presidential oath in the House Chamber in Congress Hall in Philadelphia (1797). 

Private homes in New York City; Plymouth, Vermont, and Buffalo, New York, became inaugural sites when Chester A. Arthur (1881), Theodore Roosevelt (1901) and Calvin Coolidge (1923) succeeded to the presidency following the death of their predecessors. Lyndon B. Johnson took the oath of office aboard Air Force One after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination (1963).

John Adams started the tradition of the chief justice administering the oath. Washington was not sworn in by the chief justice at his first inauguration because the Supreme Court had not yet been established. Four years later, his cabinet suggested that Associate Justice William Cushing administer the oath. 

John Adams, Washington’s successor, was the first president to receive the oath from a chief justice. Since 1797, every elected and reelected president, as well as three of nine succeeding vice presidents, have followed that tradition. The exceptions were the six vice presidents who became presidents on the death a president. John Tyler (1841), Millard Fillmore (1850), Theodore Roosevelt (1901), and Lyndon B. Johnson (1963) took the oath from a federal jurist, Chester A. Arthur (1881) from a New York Justice, and Calvin Coolidge (1923) from his father, a notary public. U.S. District Judge Sarah Hughes, the lone woman to administer the oath, swore in Lyndon B. Johnson (1963) following President Kennedy’s assassination.

Mother Nature does not always cooperate Both the warmest (55 degrees) and the coldest (7 degrees) inaugurals have been Ronald Reagan’s. The bitter cold in 1985 forced Reagan’s ceremony indoors and cancelled his parade. His was far from the first inaugural affected by inclement weather. Snow storms moved James Monroe’s (1821) and William Howard Taft’s (1909) inauguration inside, cancelled most of Grover Cleveland’s planned events in 1893, and crippled traffic for Kennedy’s in 1961. Although Taft’s parade was not canceled, the parade route did have to be cleared by workmen. Army flame throwers were used to clear heavy snow from Pennsylvania Avenue for Kennedy’s parade. 

James K. Polk (1845) and Benjamin Harrison (1889) took the oath under an umbrella in heavy rain. By the time Herbert Hoover (1929) finished his address, his face was beaded with water and his suit wringing wet from another downpour. High winds and 16 degree temperature froze the food, champagne and hundreds of caged canaries brought in for Ulysses S. Grant’s 1873 reception.

Not all presidents have been sworn in using a Bible. Washington did place his hand on a Bible, but there is no evidence that he said “so help me God” at the end of the oath. His Bible was selected for five subsequent inaugurations, and two future presidents favored the one used by Abraham Lincoln in 1861. 

John Quincy Adams and Franklin Pierce picked a book of U.S. laws. Franklin D. Roosevelt was sworn in on the oldest Bible, a 1686 edition in Dutch, which he used at all four of his inaugurations. Kennedy chose a Catholic (Douay) version of the Bible. When Johnson was sworn in aboard Air Force One after Kennedy’s assassination, he used his predecessor’s personal Roman Catholic missal because a Bible was not available. At Barack Obama’s second inauguration, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Bible sat on the lectern.

The role religion played in Trump's inauguration

Inaugural addresses are not required. Every elected president has chosen to articulate their hopes and dreams for the nation in an address. Washington’s second speech, the shortest ever given, was only 135 words. William Henry Harrison, who interrupted his remarks to take the oath, delivered a record 8,445 words, in a snowstorm. James Buchanan in his address announced that he would not “become a candidate for reelection.” Franklin Pierce delivered his without referring to notes. 

Many memorable and inspiring passages have originated from inaugural addresses. Among the best known are Washington’s pledge in 1789 to protect the new nation’s “liberties and freedoms” under “a government instituted by themselves,”; Lincoln’s plea to a divided nation to heal “with malice toward none, with charity for all”; Franklin D. Roosevelt’s declaration “that the only thing we have to have to fear is fear itself”; and Kennedy’s exhortation to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

Let’s not forget the first ladies.  Prior to the Civil War, five first ladies missed their husband’s oath taking. A sixth, the wife of an outgoing president, died of pneumonia 26 days after attending the newly elected president’s inauguration. 

Other, quite different storylines, praised Dolly Madison for organizing the first inaugural ball and being the first to attend the ceremony. Eleanor Roosevelt captured attention for being the first first Llady to go to an inaugural ball alone, and Helen Taft for being the first to ride with her husband to the ceremony. “More than a century before the Women’s March diverted attention from the inauguration of Trump and made headlines,” journalist Erin Blakemore tells us, a massive suffrage parade in 1913 “relegated (Woodrow Wilson’s) inauguration to a mere historical footnote.” In 1965, Lyndon Johnson started a tradition when he asked his wife, Lady Bird, to hold the Bible while he took the oath. Every subsequent first lady has held the Bible for her husband’s oath taking.

Media coverage evolved. Most Americans learned about Washington’s first inauguration either in a brief newspaper story or by word of mouth. Not until 1801 did a newspaper (National Intelligencer) printed the inaugural address the morning of the ceremony. 

The telegraph was first used to cover the 1845 inauguration. The same year, the first known newspaper illustration of the ceremony was published by The Illustrated London News. Later in the 19th century, inaugurations were for the first time photographed (1857) and recorded on film (1897). In 1905, telephones were installed on the Capitol Grounds for the inauguration. 

Since then, the way inaugurations are communicated to the public has changed dramatically. With each advance in technology, inauguration began to be broadcast on the radio (1925), talking newsreels (1929), television (1949), color television (1961), the internet (1997) and Twitter (2007).

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.”