Weird Facts About Presidential Inaugurations

Inauguration image from the Department of Defense

Two days ago, I watched the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. Watching the ceremony brought back memories of 2009, when I watched Barack Obama’s inauguration, and I started to think about how wonderful it is that we live in a country where the transition of power from one person and one political party to another is so peaceful and smooth. After all, that very same day, the president of the Gambia had to be convinced by an invading army to step down and let his elected successor take office.

Later, I watched a special on American Heroes Channel about how the White House Staff have only five hours on Inauguration Day to move the new First Family in and redecorate the White House to the new president’s liking. I had always assumed that it would be a multi-day process, and had no idea it had to be done so quickly! It turns out that the inauguration day parade and ceremonies have a very practical purpose – they give the staff the time they need to fix up the White House.

All of this made me wonder what other interesting facts and trivia there is floating around out there about U.S. presidential inaugurations, and so I decided to look and see what I could find.

Where the ceremony takes place has changed several times

Washington's Inauguration painting by Ramon de Elorriaga

When George Washington was sworn in in 1789, Washington, D.C. didn’t exist yet, and New York City was serving as the temporary capital. Consequently, his first inauguration was held at Federal Hall in lower Manhattan. New York didn’t stay the capital for long; just one year later the federal government moved to Philadelphia. Both George Washington’s second inauguration and John Adams’s only inauguration were held inside Congress Hall, the building Congress was using during its stay in the city.

Of course, once Washington, D.C. had been built and the federal government moved in, the tradition began that the president’s inauguration should be held at the U.S. Capitol Building, where Congress actually meets. However, there have been exceptions.

  • In 1814, British troops burned Washington, D.C. After the war ended, the White House and U.S. Capitol had to be rebuilt, so Congress temporarily met in a less-badly-damaged brick building on the site where the Supreme Court sits today. It was in front of this “Old Brick Capitol” that James Monroe’s inauguration in 1817 was held.
  • John Tyler was sworn in at the Brown’s Indian Queen Hotel in Washington, D.C.
  • When Abraham Lincoln died, the Chief Justice and Cabinet found his vice-president, Andrew Johnson, in his room at the Kirkwood House a few blocks away and held a quick inaugural ceremony there.
  • Similarly, Chester Alan Arthur was at his home in New York when he received a telegram telling him that James Abram Garfield had died, and went out to find a local judge who could swear him in. After taking the oath, Arthur set out for Washington, D.C., where he could have a more traditional inauguration ceremony at the Capitol.
  • Theodore Roosevelt rushed to Buffalo, New York when he heard that William McKinley had been shot, only to be informed on the way there that McKinley had died. His inauguration was thus held in Buffalo.
  • Calvin Coolidge was at his home in Vermont when he heard of Warren G. Harding’s death, and had his father – a notary public – swear him in as President in front of a crowd of reporters that had gathered at his house.
  • Harry S Truman’s first inauguration took place in the White House, as did Gerald Ford’s inauguration.
  • Perhaps the most famous not-at-the-Capitol inauguration was that of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was hurriedly sworn in aboard Air Force One in the chaotic confusion after John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Even ceremonies at the U.S. Capitol have moved around. In the early years, most ceremonies were held in either the Senate or House chambers inside the building, but later, it became traditional to hold the ceremony in front of the Capitol’s east side. Then, in 1981, Ronald Reagan insisted that the ceremony should be held on the west side, symbolically facing the majority of the land and people of the United States. Every presidential inauguration since then has been held on the west side of the Capitol.

Not all presidents were sworn in on a Bible

Lincoln Bible image by Michaela McNichol

In fact, when you go down the list of what each president had his hand on when he took the oath, you find that John Quincy Adams and Franklin Pierce were sworn in on a law book, and that Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in on John F. Kennedy’s Catholic Missal, the only religious book they could find on Air Force One. Not only that, but we just plain don’t know what 14 presidents used during their swearing-in ceremonies, as nobody thought to keep a record of that. The idea that every president must be sworn in on a Bible that has some important symbolic meaning – be it George Washington’s Bible, Abraham Lincoln’s Bible (pictured above), or a Bible that carries some deep personal meaning to the new president – is very new.

Also, while some presidents who use the Bible for their swearing-in will have the book closed and their hand on the cover, some presidents prefer to have the Bible open and their hand on a particular Bible verse. Still others will stack Bibles: Barack Obama’s second inauguration used the Lincoln Bible on top of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Bible, while Donald Trump used the Lincoln Bible on top of a Bible from his childhood. When George H.W. Bush was sworn in, he combined the two: his family Bible was opened and set on top of George Washington’s Bible, which was also open.

Mishaps and Misfires

There have now been 58 inauguration ceremonies, and this has meant that there have been 58 chances for something to go wrong with the inauguration. Let’s talk about some of those times that something did.

  • Andrew Jackson wanted to show himself to be a “man of the people”, so he decided that for his inauguration, the White House would be open to the public. That turned out to be a bad idea, as tens of thousands of citizens showed up and trashed the place.
  • James Buchanan had contracted food poisoning just before his inauguration, and spent his big day struggling with a bad case of diarrhea.
  • During Ulysses S. Grant’s second inauguration, the place where the inaugural ball was to be held was freezing cold and there was no time to heat the building up. People had to dance in coats and scarves, the food and drinks provided were frozen solid, and a flock of canaries brought in to please the guests all froze to death.
  • The podium at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration caught fire because the space heater beneath it had a short.
  • William Henry Harrison’s inauguration killed him. At 68 years old when he took office in 1841, he delivered the longest inaugural speech in U.S. history, all while standing on the East Portico of the Capitol in cold and mucky weather without a coat, hat, or gloves. Not long after his inauguration, he got a cold that developed into pneumonia. He died after being president for only a month, making his presidency the shortest in U.S. history.

Some More Inauguration Trivia

Lastly, let’s finish off with some quick trivia tidbits about the various inauguration ceremonies of U.S. history:

  • Thomas Jefferson was the first president to hold an inaugural parade.
  • James Madison was the first president to hold an inaugural ball. Madison was also the first president to be inaugurated during wartime.
  • John Quincy Adams was the first president to wear trousers, not breeches, to his inauguration.
  • James Buchanan’s inauguration was the first to be photographed.
  • William McKinley’s inauguration was the first to be recorded by a motion picture camera.
  • Warren G. Harding was the first president to ride in a car to his inauguration.
  • Calvin Coolidge’s inauguration was the first to be broadcast over the radio.
  • Harry S Truman’s inauguration was the first to be televised.
  • John F. Kennedy was the first president whose ceremony included an inaugural poet, with Robert Frost doing the honors. Kennedy was also the last president to wear a hat at his inauguration.
  • Jimmy Carter was the first president to make sure his inauguration was handicapped-accessible.
  • Bill Clinton’s inauguration was the first to be streamed on the Internet.


Why is January 1st the First Day of the Year?

Happy Ne Year 2017 by Covi

Happy New Year, Cat Flaggers! 2016 is over, and 2017 has arrived! But… why? Why is January 1st the first day of the year? After all, the end of one year and start of another is a bit of an arbitrary distinction.

The calendar we Americans use, and most of the rest of the world also uses, is known as the Gregorian calendar. It was designed by two men, Aloysius Lilius and Christopher Clavius, and proclaimed by Pope Gregory XIII in October 1582. The new calendar was immediately made the official calendar of the Roman Catholic Church and heavily-Catholic countries like Spain, Italy, and Poland. However, it was only gradually adopted by non-Catholic countries. Britain and her then-colonies in America didn’t switch to it until 1752, when George Washington was 20 years old. Russia didn’t start using it until 1918, Greece didn’t adopt it until 1923, and it wasn’t until 1926 that Turkey began to use it! Even today, three countries – Ethiopia, Iran and Afghanistan – have refused to use it.

It was the Gregorian calendar that standardized January 1st as the start of the new year. But again, the question is why. Well, the Gregorian calendar was based on the earlier Julian calendar, which was designed by none other than Julius Caesar and had been used in Europe since he proclaimed it throughout the Roman Empire in 45 BC. His calendar, in turn, was based on the ancient Roman calendar that Romans had been using for centuries before Caesar came along.

According to Roman traditional legends, the original calendar adopted at the foundation of Rome had 10 months – March, April, May, June, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, and December. It was 304 days long, but had an odd feature – almost the entire season of winter wasn’t counted. The year would end and 51 additional days would pass before the next one would begin. Roman historians claimed that Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome, added two months to account for those winter days: January (in honor of the Roman god Janus) and February (which would be honored by the Roman purification festival, Februa). It made sense for January 1st to be the start of the new year, since it celebrated the god of beginnings and transitions.

This revised Roman calendar was now 355 days long, but this meant seasonal festivals tied to solstices and equinoxes would quickly fall out of alignment, leading to such confusing situations as spring festivals being celebrated when it was still winter. So, Romans would periodically add an additional “bonus” month named Mercedonius of varying length to get everything back into alignment. Years that featured Mercedonius would be 377 or 378 days long. Rome’s leaders were supposed to study the stars and the seasons to decide when to add this bonus month, but instead they often added it in years where it wasn’t needed to extend their terms of office and those of their cronies. Julius Caesar’s new calendar ditched Mercedonius entirely, instead decreeing that every fourth year would be a “leap year” that gave an extra day to February, the shortest month. Later Roman emperors would also change the names of two of the months, Quintilis becoming July and Sextilis becoming August.

Obviously, this calendar survived the fall of the Roman Empire, in large part because Christians used it to calculate the dates of their most important holidays, such as Easter and Christmas. However, Christians were not so thrilled to honor a pagan god they didn’t worship by starting the year on the first day of his month. While the Roman Catholic Church continued to officially count January 1st as New Year’s Day, various countries started using other dates to start their years, such as Christmas or Easter. The French and English counted March 25, the date of the Annunciation, as New Year’s Day. In France, the New Year celebration lasted a whole week and ended on April 1st.

This brings me back to Pope Gregory XIII and his decision to change the calendar. It turned out Julius Caesar’s calendar reform wasn’t perfect. The orbit of the Earth around the sun is actually 365.25636 days, so having a leap year every four years, over the course of many centuries, caused the Julian calendar to go ever so slightly out of alignment with the seasons. The Gregorian calendar fixed this by having October 4, 1582, followed immediately by October 15, 1582, and then changing the leap year formula a bit. Years that are divisible by 100 (1700, 1800, 1900, etc.) would NOT be leap years, UNLESS they were ALSO divisible by 400 (1600, 2000, etc.). This simple(ish) change makes our calendar so accurate, it has an error of 1 day per 7,700 years.

Nothing in any of this required the new year to start on any particular day, but since the Catholic Church had always officially used January 1st, Pope Gregory XIII held that New Year’s Day on his calendar would continue to fall on that date. As country after country adopted his calendar, they also adopted his New Year’s Day. In so doing, they were essentially returning to an earlier tradition.

Interestingly, some have speculated that April Fool’s Day exists because of this change. The story goes that after France adopted the Gregorian calendar, Frenchmen who honored New Year’s Day on January 1st would play pranks on those who continued to celebrate it from March 25 to April 1st instead of getting with the times.

So, why do we celebrate New Year’s Day on January 1st? Because the ancient Romans and the Catholic Church did. History can be funny like that.