There are many ceremonies held at the nation’s capitol, but Presidential Inauguration Day is the one Americans likely know best, and there are some fascinating facts surrounding Inauguration Day.
The next Presidential Inauguration Day will be on January 20, 2021.
Did you know that in 2017 with the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States the Oath of Office has been administered not 45 times, but 72 times? We’ll explore why that is below, but first…
The First Inauguration Day
The first Presidential Inauguration Day did not go as smoothly as originally planned. In 1788, officials marked their calendars on the first Wednesday in March, 1789. But weather delays kept elected officials from traveling to what was then (temporarily) serving as the nation’s capital, New York City, to count electoral ballots and make the announcement.
When the work was finally done on April 6, 1789, it was announced that George Washington had a unanimous victory (carrying 69 electoral votes) and the first Inauguration Day finally took place on April 30, 1789.
The Oath of Office was administered by the Chancellor of New York at Federal Hall in front of a crowd gathered to witness history; the new President delivered the very first inaugural address in the Senate Chamber to a joint session of Congress.
The Earliest Inauguration Days
American traditions take time to evolve. Early Presidential Inauguration Days were scheduled for March 4 (as directed by the U.S. Constitution) each time to allow time to count election returns, and to provide travel time for elected officials.
As communications and transportation technology evolved in early America, these considerations became less important. In 1933, the 20th Amendment officially changed the date of Inauguration Day to January 20. Today, Inauguration Day is a public event with much pomp and circumstance; the day has come a long way since George Washington took the oath on a New York balcony back in 1789.
What Happens At Modern Presidential Inauguration Day
21st century inaugural events are planned by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. It’s a busy day for the President and Vice President and their families. Swearing-in is only one of the many things accomplished on this day including:
- Attendance at a religious service or ceremony
- Procession to the Capitol
- Oath of Office/Swearing-in ceremony for the Vice President
- Oath of Office/Swearing-in ceremony for the President
- Inaugural Address
- Departure of the Outgoing President
- Inaugural Lunch
- Inaugural Parade
- Inaugural Ball
The Oath of Office
The text of the Oath of Office for the President of The United States includes the following:
“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
The U.S Constitution does not direct a specific person or entity to administer the oath, but it has in the past been administered by members of the Supreme Court, federal judges, and in at least one case, a notary public. President Calvin Coolidge was sworn in by his own father.
The Worst-Ever Inauguration Days
American history is full of somber moments that deserve respect. And then there are points in history that leave modern-day readers wondering if they’ve accidentally stumbled onto a book of satire rather than a recollection of actual U.S. history.
Some of our Inauguration Days have not gone as planned, and some have been more or less complete trainwrecks–at least as viewed through the lens of history. Here are some of them, listed not necessarily in chronological order, but rather by severity.
The Inauguration Of James Buchanan In 1857
James Buchanan won the Presidency and became the 18th President in 1857. Ahead of Inauguration Day, Buchanan and several prominent Washington people stayed at the National Hotel. Unfortunately they did so as that hotel was becoming the epicenter for an outbreak then labeled “National Hotel Disease” but later suspected to be dysentery.
This outbreak affected hundreds of people and according to some sources, three congressmen were among the 36 deaths associated with the outbreak. Even the President was afflicted by the illness. Conspiracy theories were rampant at the time (sound familiar?) including speculation that poison was used to sicken all those people.
Abraham Lincoln & Andrew Johnson In 1865
When Abraham Lincoln was re-elected, his Inauguration Day was marred by the drunken antics of his Vice President, Andrew Johnson. The story goes that Johnson arrived in Washington for the ceremony while recovering from typhoid fever; whether you believe that portion of the story or not doesn’t change what happened next–Johnson spent the night before Inauguration Day drinking. Some say this was an attempt to “self-medicate.”
Whatever the intent, the following day Johnson attempted to stave off a hangover with the tried-and-not-always-true “hair of the dog” method. Johnson is reported to have consumed three straight whiskeys before attempting to navigate a long and emotional Inauguration Day speech.
Reviews of this speech include mention of President Lincoln watching this display with a look of “unutterable sorrow” according to Senate history. At least one other elected onlooker was said to have covered his face with his hands in embarrassment for his colleague.
The peak of this disaster? Johnson was too inebriated to perform his ceremonial duty that day to swear in the country’s newest elected officials. Lincoln stood by his Vice President even as calls for impeachment were going out–Lincoln went on the record saying he felt Johnson’s “mistake” would never happen again.
Andrew Jackson In 1829
We could go on and on with Inaugural Day horror stories, but space permits only one more–arguably one of the wilder stories of this type. Andrew Jackson chose to hold a very public taking of the Oath of Office–some 20,000 came to the nation’s capitol to see Jackson take the oath.
Apparently, nobody planned for what to do with those 20,000 citizens once the event had ended. A gathering this large was not common in those days, and it wasn’t long before the sheer volume of the gathering became problematic. A large number of people made their way to the White House–history shows that in those days a post-swearing-in reception there was not unheard of.
But this Inauguration Day crowd wasn’t satisfied with paying their respects. Looting began in some of the White House rooms, White House items were broken, and the crowd apparently became a drunken mess. The President himself had to be helped “escape” all this through a window. Eventually someone woke up to the fact that you could end the party by taking the alcohol away, but the damage had already been done–and there was more to come!
Spouses of Jackson’s cabinet members at the Inaugural Ball got into a loud, classist argument about the social standing of one of their number…all of this became a perfect storm of awful for some and resulted in the resignation of multiple cabinet members including Martin Van Buren.
Why There Have Been 72 Oaths Of Office For 45 Presidents
At the beginning of this article, we mentioned that the Presidential Oath of Office has been administered to 45 Presidents at the time of this writing, but that oath was taken a whopping 72 times. Why?
Part of the reason has to do with mid-century American traditions. In the 20th century when Inauguration Day fell on a Sunday, many Presidents chose to take the Oath of Office privately and hold the public ceremony on the following business day.
Sometimes this was for personal religious reasons, others may have been done as a show of respect for Sunday as a religious day of reflection rather than a day to do the country’s business.
This accounts for some of the “extra” oath-taking, but not all. Some choose to take the oath in private ahead of any public ceremony, and in the case of President Grover Cleveland, the oath was taken twice because Cleveland served two terms, but not consecutively–he is considered both the 22nd President AND the 24th President of the United States.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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