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.