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Presidential Inaugurations Outside of Washington, D.C. – Law and Tradition

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The following is a guest post by Janice Hyde, assistant law librarian for the Law Library’s Global Legal Collections Directorate.  Janice has previously contributed to this blog with posts such as: Crossing State Lines to Settle Squabbles – Pic of the Week, Archived Legal Materials from Official Gazettes Now Available Through and A View of the Parliamentary Library of Québec – Pic of the Week.

First correct composite photograph made of President Coolidge’s first dramatic inaugural in Plymouth, Vt. (The Boston Post, 1925), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Four years ago, my colleague, Donna Sokol, provided a snapshot of the inaugural platform being constructed on the west front of the Capitol. Several weeks later, the nearly completed platform was chronicled by Robert Brammer in his post. My, how time flies, as Washington is once again making preparations for a presidential inauguration to take place on January 20, 2017.  Every four years Washington plays host to this major event, even though there is no legal requirement for inaugurations to be held here (more on this below).  Since the capitol moved to Washington, D.C. in 1800, there are only four instances in which presidents were sworn in outside of the city, all vice presidents who succeeded to the presidency upon the assassination or death of the president.

  • Chester A. Arthur, Vice President under James Garfield, succeeded to President upon the death of James Garfield who was shot by Charles J. Guiteau on July 2, 1881 in Washington, D.C.  Garfield died on September 19, 1881. The oath of office was administered to Chester Arthur by Justice John R. Brady of the New York State Supreme Court on September 20, 1881 at Arthur’s residence at 123 Lexington Avenue, New York.
  • Theodore Roosevelt became President following the assassination of William McKinley, who was shot by Leon F. Czolgosz in Buffalo, New York, on September 6, 1901. McKinley died on September 14, 1901.  Roosevelt had been camping in the Adirondacks when he learned that McKinley was not expected to survive. Roosevelt was rushed to a train station and, upon his arrival in Buffalo, learned that McKinley had died. With no formal instruction about how to proceed, he accepted an invitation to stay at the home of his friend, a prominent attorney named Ansley Wilcox.  The swearing in ceremony took place at the Wilcox home with Federal Judge John R. Hazel administering the oath before a large party of dignitaries and other witnesses.
  • On August 23, 1923 following the death of Warren G. Harding, who was on a speaking tour in the western states, Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as president at the Coolidge family home in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. The oath was administered by his father, John Calvin Coolidge Sr., a Vermont notary public and justice of the peace.
  • Those of us born before 1963 can personally recall Lyndon Baines Johnson taking the oath of office on Air Force One in Dallas, Texas following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In addition to being the only president to assume office in an airplane, it is also the first time that a woman, U.S. District Judge Sarah T. Hughes, administered the oath of office.

What aspects of presidential inaugurations are mandated by law? Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution specifies the actual language of the oath or affirmation (incoming presidents can “swear” or “affirm”) including the phrase “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States,” which has caused the occasional slip of the tongue and confusion over word order.  The starting date of the presidential term (“inauguration day”) is also set by the twentieth amendment to the Constitution as January 20th.   Beyond this, everything else surrounding presidential inaugurations is based on custom.  As noted by Michael Nelson in Guide to the Presidency and the Executive Branch (p. 365):

Ritual acts pervade politics in recognition that the symbolism of public rites reassures and binds together diverse peoples. In keeping with this understanding, each presidential election is capped by a ceremony of grand proportions:  the inauguration of the new president.  This ceremony is an overt political ritual intended to instill patriotism, unite the nation behind its leader, and provide for an orderly transition of power…. Yet almost nothing of that ceremony is required by law.  Most of it has evolved by way of tradition.

Other conventions commonly upheld at presidential inaugurations include the administration of the oath of office by the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and taking the oath upon a bible, a practice begun by George Washington.

Since Washington, D.C. has become the customary site of presidential inaugurations there are now well-established institutions and provisions in place to support the massive quadrennial undertaking.  For example, Section 8 of the Code of the District of Columbia is devoted to appropriations, infrastructure support, use of public spaces, and similar issues related to presidential inaugurations.  The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies is responsible for planning and executing presidential inauguration ceremonies.  The inaugural platform mentioned in the first paragraph is erected by the Architect of the Capitol, which has its own traditions surrounding the event including a “first-nail ceremony” marking the start of platform construction.

Curious about other presidential inaugurations? If so, then you may want to check out the many online resources and digitized materials offered by the Library.




  1. Should George Washington be included on this list? His first inauguration was in New York City; the second in Philadelphia.

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