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Weathering the Weather on Inauguration Day

Print of George Washington being sworn in at Federal Hall in New York City, 1789. //www.loc.gov/item/00650349/

Inauguration Day has been observed in seven separate months and in several locations throughout the history of the United States. The majority have been observed in either March or January, though there were some outliers due to extenuating circumstances. The ceremony itself has been performed in New York City, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Dallas, Vermont, and of course Washington, D.C. Official weather records taken by the government began in 1871, but we can use other resources such as Chronicling America to determine what Inauguration Day was like for earlier presidents. The following is only a sampling of historical weather on those venerable days.

The inaugural inauguration for George Washington took place on April 30, 1789 at Federal Hall in New York City. According to Louise Durbin, an inaugural historian, it was “gray and overcast in the morning” which later gave way to clear skies. Thanks to Henry Laight’s weather diaries, we know that at noon the temperature was 59°F (15°C). The ceremony was performed on the second floor balcony before a good-sized crowd and loud cheers.

One of the more well-known inauguration weather accounts features William Henry Harrison , who was sworn in as President of the United States in Washington, D.C. on March 4, 1841. The day was cloudy and chilly with a low of 34°F (1°C) in the morning and a high of 51°F (11°C) in the afternoon. He refused to wear a coat during the ceremony which lasted nearly two hours. Harrison became ill with a cold that eventually lead to his death from pneumonia on April 4, 1841, exactly one month after taking office.

Photograph of the Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln at the Capitol. //www.loc.gov/item/00652340/

Abraham Lincoln was sworn into office on March 4, 1861. The day was cool, with the wind enthusiastically blowing dust around Washington. An account from the Daily Exchange reads “The sky was cloudy and the air was cool and agreeable. There was some fear of rain, and had a slight shower fallen, just sufficient to have settled the dust, it would have been a blessing.”

In 1937 a dramatic change occurred in regard to Inauguration Day. President Franklin Roosevelt was sworn in on January 20, 1937. Perhaps not the best year to switch from March to January, Roosevelt’s ceremony took place in harsh conditions: cold, heavy rainfall with a temperature of 33°F (.5°C). The following day, journalist William V. Nessly of The Washington Post commented “The hardy crowd outside waited patiently for his appearance. Everyone stood on the soaked benches, while rain poured upon them. Thoroughly drenched, and with chill winds sweeping them, the thousands held to their places.”

For Jimmy Carter in 1977, Inauguration Day was sunny but cold with a temperature just below 30°F (-1°C). The crowds were estimated at about 150,000 and certainly all eyes were on President Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter when they took the unprecedented step of walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, which has since become the norm.

Fish-eye view of the U.S. Capitol Rotunda of President Regan’s public ceremony, 1985. //www.loc.gov/item/00652317/

The second Reagan inauguration in 1985 was one of the coldest on record. Library of Congress Science Librarian Stephanie Marcus remembers this day well stating “It was one of the few times in history that Inauguration Day fell on a Sunday (which was also the Super Bowl) and Reagan was sworn in that day privately inside the White House. The public ceremony was held the next day (January 21) inside the Capitol Rotunda. It was bitterly cold ,  7° F (-14°C) with a windchill of minus 25° F (-32°C)!” Initially the public ceremony was to be held on the West Front of the Capitol, but due to sub-zero temperatures it was moved to the Rotunda. Another interesting fact from President Reagan’s second inauguration – he was the first sitting president to perform the coin toss for the Super Bowl by satellite from the Oval Office.

The weather forecasted for the day of the upcoming inauguration in Washington, D.C. for President-elect Joe Biden has the potential for cloudy skies and a 20% chance of precipitation (retrieved January 13, 2021). The temperature outlook is for a high around 46°F (7.7°C) which is quite average for January inaugurations.

Panoramic Postcard of the Inauguration of President Theodore Roosevelt at the Capitol, 1905. //www.loc.gov/item/2008681169/

To find out more about Inauguration Day, including which ceremonies were held indoors or in other locations around the country, I recommend the following resources:

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