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Intriguing Facts about Presidential Inaugurations Past

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From drunk VPs to frozen canaries, anything can—and often does—happen on Inauguration Day!  Here are some interesting tidbits about past presidential inaugurations.

“Triumphal Pageant of Progress Recorded by Inaugurations,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), March 4, 1929.

Today, we know that Inauguration Day is January 20th, but until the ratification of the Twentieth Amendment in 1933, inaugurations used to happen in March.  On September 13, 1788,  the Continental Congress declared the official day for presidential inaugurations was March 4th.  The first inauguration, however, didn’t take place on March 4, 1789, but nearly two months later on April 30th.  Although Congress scheduled the first inauguration for March, they were unable to count the electoral ballots that quickly.  Consequently, the first inauguration was postponed to allow President-elect George Washington time to make the long trip from his home Mount Vernon in Virginia to the nation’s capital in New York City.  Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first President inaugurated on the new date, for his second inauguration on January 20, 1937.

“President and Mrs. Roosevelt…,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), January 20, 1937.

While there have been several presidents who have been inaugurated in locations other than Washington, DC (e.g. in a private residence, in a farmhouse, on an airplane), George Washington is the only president to have been inaugurated in two capital cities.  Washington took the presidential oath on the balcony of New York City’s Federal Hall on April 30, 1789.  His second inauguration took place on March 4, 1793, at Congress Hall in Philadelphia, which was the nation’s capital at the time.

“New York, May 2,” Gazette of the United-States (New York, NY), May 2, 1789.
“Independence Scene, 1789,” Pittsburgh Dispatch (Pittsburgh, PA), May 1, 1889.


“State House, Philadelphia…,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), November 5, 1950.
“By this Day’s Mail,” The Diary, or, Loudon’s Register (New York, NY), March 6, 1793, p. 3.

In 1801, Thomas Jefferson decided to walk to his inauguration to demonstrate what he regarded as “Republican simplicity,” which was in contrast to the pomp and grandeur shown by his predecessors.  According to one New York newspaper, The Weekly Museum, Jefferson wore the clothes “of a plain citizen without any distinctive badge of office,” and walked from New Jersey Avenue and C Street, where he had been staying at a boarding house, to the Capitol.

“Proceedings at Washington on the Day of Inauguration,” The Weekly Museum (New York, NY), March 14, 1801, p. 4.

For many years, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had maintained a close friendship, working together in the early days of the nation.  After Washington chose not to seek a third term, however, Adams and Jefferson ran against each other with vastly different political views.  Adams believed in a strong central government while Jefferson advocated states’ rights.  The two became rivals, so much so that when Jefferson was inaugurated on March 4, 1801, Adams was not in attendance.  Hours before the ceremony, Adams left Washington to head back to his farm in Braintree, Massachusetts.  This made Adams the first president to skip his successor’s swearing-in.

“Speech of Thomas Jefferson,” The Weekly Museum (New York, NY), March 14, 1801, p. 3.

Adams and Jefferson eventually reconciled and over the last 15 years of their lives, the two ex-presidents exchanged over 150 letters.  The men died within hours of each other on the same day–July 4, 1826.  

Twenty-eight years after his father skipped Jefferson’s inauguration, history repeated itself when John Quincy Adams boycotted Andrew Jackson’s inauguration on March 4, 1829.

“President John Quincy Adams,” The Midland Journal (Rising Sun, MD), August 15, 1930.
American and Commercial Daily Advertiser (Baltimore, MD), March 4, 1829, p. 1.

One day after his March 4, 1809 inauguration, James Madison attended the first Inaugural Ball as the guest of honor.  The party took place at Robert Long’s Hotel and featured music and dancing. Tickets were $4 apiece. 

“James Madison,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), May 27, 1945.
Virginia Argus (Richmond, VA), March 7, 1809.

In 1849, Inauguration Day fell on a Sunday, and Zachary Taylor refused to be sworn in on that day because he was strict about “keeping holy the Sabbath.”  The presidency could not be vacant for a day, so the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, David Rice Atchison, was brought in as a substitute.   Some argue that this makes Atchison the 12th president and Taylor the 13th, but it is generally assumed that he does not count.  The inscription on Atchison’s gravestone humorously states, “President of the United States for One Day.”

“Monday, March 5, 1849,” The Daily Union (Washington, DC), March 6, 1849.
“The President You Never Heard Of,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), January 18, 1953.

When Franklin Pierce was inaugurated on March 4, 1853, he became the only president to “affirm” rather than “swear” the office of the president.

“Franklin Pierce,” The State Herald (Holyoke, CO), October 8, 1920.
“Inauguration of Franklin Pierce,” The New York Herald (New York, NY), March 5, 1853.

In 1857, James Buchanan announced during his inaugural address that he would not run for a second term.  He stayed true to his word, which may have been the right decision as he is often ranked as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history.

“James Buchanan,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), April 8, 1956.
“President’s Address,” American Union (Morgantown, WV), March 14, 1857.

When Andrew Johnson was inaugurated as vice president in 1865, he was completely drunk.  He had been suffering from typhoid fever at the time and purportedly drank whiskey to numb the pain—except he drank a little too much and ended up slurring through his oaths.

“Andrew Johnson,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), April 1, 1856.
“The Inaugural Humiliation,” The Cadiz Sentinel (Cadiz, OH), March 15, 1865.

On March 4, 1873, Ulysses S. Grant’s second inauguration was so cold, the food and champagne froze–and so did hundreds of caged canaries that were brought in for the reception.

“Grant’s second inaugural,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), March 9, 1929.
“The Canaries at the Ball,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), March 5, 1873.

For his second inauguration in 1905, Theodore Roosevelt wore one of Abraham Lincoln’s rings.  John Hay, Roosevelt’s secretary of state, had been Lincoln’s private secretary as young man and was there when Lincoln was assassinated.  Mary Todd Lincoln had given Hay the ring and he let Roosevelt wear it for the inauguration.

“Roosevelt and Fairbanks Inaugurated,” New-York Tribune (New York, NY), March 5, 1905.
“Wore Lincoln’s Ring,” Evening Journal (Wilmington, DE), March 4, 1905.

When President Warren G. Harding died in office, Calvin Coolidge was at his family’s Vermont farm, which had no electricity or telephone.  He received word of Harding’s death by courier.  During the early morning hours on August 3, 1923, Coolidge was sworn in by his father, who was a notary public.  The entire ceremony was conducted by kerosene lamp and the new President reportedly went back to bed afterwards.  In 1925, for his second inauguration, he was sworn in by former president William Howard Taft, who was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court at the time.

“Farmhouse Sees Historic Drama as Father Gives Coolidge Oath,” The Bismarck Tribune (Bismarck, ND), August 6, 1923.

Wearing a top hat for the swearing-in ceremony was once a custom that dated back to at least James Garfield’s inauguration in 1881.  John F. Kennedy was the last president to don a top hat at his inauguration in 1961.  Lyndon Johnson passed on making the fashion statement in 1965, thus bringing an end to the inaugural top hat tradition.

“Good Humor–A grinning retiring President Eisenhower and successor en route to the inauguration,” Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, CA), January 21, 1961, p. B.

Following the assassination of President Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson took the oath of office on November 22, 1963 aboard Air Force One.  Judge Sarah Hughes administered the oath and she became the first woman to inaugurate a president.

“Lyndon Johnson being sworn in…,” The Chronicle (Pascagoula, MS), November 28, 1963.

When Ronald Reagan was governor of California, he developed a jelly bean habit after he quit smoking. In 1981, three tons of red, white, and blue Jelly Belly jelly beans were used in Reagan’s inauguration.  In fact, the blueberry Jelly Belly was created for that purpose.

“Thanks to Reagan, how sweet it is for jelly beans,” Chicago Tribune (Chicago, IL), May 21, 1981, Section 6, p. 1.

Mother Nature played in a hand in both of Ronald Reagan’s inaugurations, at either ends of the spectrum.  His first inauguration, on January 20, 1981, holds the record for the warmest Inauguration Day (55° F at noon in Washington, DC).  His second, on January 21, 1985, registered as the coldest Inauguration Day on record (it was 7° F out in DC).

“Inauguration Day Weather Warmest in Recent Memory,” Hartford Courant (Hartford, CT), January 21, 1981, p. A15.
“Reagan Takes Oath of Office for 2nd Term; Record Cold Forces Cancellation of Parade,” Washington Post (Washington, DC), January 21, 1985, p. A1.

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* The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Comments (11)

  1. “This made Adams the first president to skip his predecessor’s swearing-in.” Shouldn’t that be his SUCCESSOR’S swearing-in?

    • You’re correct Stephen. Thank you!

  2. And don’t forget, Trump had the largest crowd to ever view an inauguration!

  3. Absolutely fascinating detail! Thank you.

  4. Wonderful, fascinating information- particularly in light off recent events . Thank you.

  5. In point of fact, the largest attendance at any inauguration was for Obama. In the future, there may be more as our population grows.

  6. When was the last inauguration after which the new president walked from the Capitol along Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House?

    • According to newspapers, President Donald Trump walked for several minutes down Pennsylvania Ave. following his inauguration in 2017.

  7. Interesting, especially about a One Day President and Lincoln’s ring. Fantastic the Library has copies of newspapers that old.

    The Library is amazing. I was there when Jefferson’s library was on display. If I lived near D.C. I’d visit every week. Trying to go online to see material is daunting for me, wish it were a little easier.

    • Thank you Nancy!
      The Library’s collections are so vast, it can seem overwhelming. Submit an Ask-a-Librarian question online and a librarian can help you navigate digital collections and suggest resources and search strategies.

  8. Enjoyed reading about the Past Presidents inaugurations.
    Almost wish I was there. Thanks again

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