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As Inauguration Day is on Friday, January 20, what follows is a history of how the day developed and what happens when an incoming or re-elected American president takes his oath of office.

The date

As I was researching this topic, it was interesting to note that George Washington was sworn in at the end of April and Franklin Delano Roosevelt in January. Why?

In September 1788, once nine states had ratified the Constitution, March 4 was set as the day when the US government began operations. If March 4 fell on a Sunday, the swearing-in was done privately with a public taking of the oath on Monday, March 5.

By an act of Congress, elections were held in November or December starting in 1792. In 1845, the date was changed to early November.

George Washington was not sworn in until April 30, 1789. This was because of a bad winter.

From that point through the 19th century, extra time was needed to tabulate votes and for the incoming president and his administration to travel to the capital. The first time this became an issue was in 1860. tells us:

the lengthy lame-duck period caused problems such as in the aftermath of the 1860 election when seven states left the Union during the long “Secession Winter.” President-elect Abraham Lincoln had no power to act, and outgoing President James Buchanan took no action, leaving the issue for his successor.

With the expansion of rail travel in the middle of the 19th century followed by the advent of motor vehicles in the early 20th, transport time was greatly reduced. Technology such as the telegraph and, later, the telephone made communications easier.

Incidentally, Rutherford B Hayes had the first telephone installed in the White House:

The long delay between election and inauguration, once necessary, turned into a nuisance.

The Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States scrapped March 4 in favour of January 20 for the president and vice president. Congress would begin their sessions earlier, on January 3. The amendment also has contingency provisions in cases where there is no president-elect.

Even this was problematic. explains:

The 20th Amendment didn’t take effect until October 1933, after the long lame-duck period once again proved problematic. With the U.S. in the throes of the Great Depression, incoming President Franklin D. Roosevelt had to wait four months to implement his New Deal while uncertainty further roiled financial markets. January 20 first served as Inauguration Day in 1937 when Roosevelt was sworn in for a second term.

When January 20 falls on a Sunday, the swearing-in is held privately with the public inauguration taking place on Monday, January 21.

Inauguration locations

As Washington, DC was not yet designated as the nation’s capital the first presidents gave their inaugural addresses in either New York or Philadelphia.

In 1790, George Washington selected the area of land which became known as the District of Columbia, made up of parts of Maryland and Virginia. Columbia was the poetic name for the United States and was a well known term at that time.

Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president, gave both of his inaugural addresses at the United States Capitol in DC, the location generally used for inaugurations, albeit with some exceptions. When renovations were being done on the Capitol building, James Madison was sworn in at the Old Brick Capitol building in 1817. In 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was sworn in for his last term of office at the White House, possibly for health reasons.


Although prayers have been a part of the inauguration ceremony since George Washington became the first president, they became more formalised in 1937, FDR’s second inauguration.

FDR began the tradition of a prayer service held on Inauguration Day prior to the swearing-in ceremony. Today, a national prayer service takes place the day after the inauguration at the National Cathedral.


A Bible has often been used when the president takes the oath of office. George Washington used one in 1789. We do not know if he used one for his second inauguration. Records are unknown for the next several presidents.

John Quincy Adams took his oath on a law book in 1825. Although Martin Van Buren was sworn in on a Bible in 1837, the trail goes cold for his successors until 1853, when Franklin Pierce used a law book.

Abraham Lincoln used a Bible for both his inaugurations.

Although there were some exceptions afterwards, mostly when vice-presidents assumed office after a president’s death, the Bible became more commonplace for the oath with Ulysses S Grant’s second inauguration in 1873. The tradition continues today.

Other daytime events

After the inauguration ceremony, a number of other events take place.

Congressional luncheon

A Congressional luncheon is held which the president, vice-president and their guests attend. This tradition began in 1953 — Dwight D Eisenhower’s first inauguration — and leaders from both the House of Representatives and the Senate are present.

Presidential procession to the White House

This tradition, started by Jefferson on his second term, involves a public procession down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House.

Presidents have walked or ridden in a vehicle. Weather and security issues determine both. Where more recent presidents walk, it is only for part of the way, because of security concerns.

Inaugural parade

With Jefferson’s second inauguration, a parade became part of the afternoon activities.

In Jefferson’s day, this was part of the procession to the White House. He was accompanied by musicians and shipmen from the Washington Navy Yard on horseback.

For the next few inaugurations, an open house was held at what was known as the President’s House.

By the time Andrew Jackson was inaugurated in 1829, so many people were at the open house. Over time, the public reception at the White House gave way to the parade.

By 1837, Martin Van Buren’s parade began the evolution of the event to what we recognise today. Horse drawn floats became part of the festivities. Ten years later, an official committee began organising the parades, something which continues today.

In 1885, Grover Cleveland was the first president to have a reviewing stand, primarily to review the military troops passing by.

1865, Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration, was the first year when blacks appeared in an inaugural parade. Women were not part of the parade until 1917. The 2009 parade — Obama’s second inauguration — featured the first openly lesbian and gay participants.

The parades sometimes last all afternoon. It is up to the incoming president to give his preference to the committee.

Inaugurations past and present

Mashable has a great collection of photos, invitations and videos of inaugurations from the 20th century. Don’t miss it. You will find it fascinating.

Enjoy reading five little known facts about earlier presidents in Dr Larry Schweikart’s article for Townhall.

Inaugural ball

The US Senate website has an excellent history of the inaugural ball.

George Washington’s sponsors held one for him and his wife Martha in 1789 one week after the inauguration.

However, it was only in 1809, that the ball became an inaugural tradition. James Madison took office that year. His wife Dolley hosted a gala event for 400 guests. Tickets were $4 each — a princely sum in those days.

In 1833, Andrew Jackson attended two balls. In 1841, William Henry Harrison attended three.

In the mid-19th century, ball organisers wanted one venue large enough to accommodate everyone. James Buchanan was inaugurated in 1857 and had one huge event in a temporary purpose-built ballroom:

Food purchased for Buchanan’s ball included $3000 worth of wine, 400 gallons of oysters, 500 quarts of chicken salad, 1200 quarts of ice cream, 60 saddles of mutton, 8 rounds of beef, 75 hams and 125 tongues.

The next two were held in government buildings: Lincoln’s (1865) and Grant’s (1869). Grant’s didn’t go too well, because the north wing of the Treasury Building didn’t have enough room for dancing. For his second inauguration in 1873, a purpose-built structure was erected as it had been for Buchanan. Unfortunately, that also was a disaster. The weather was so bitter that the decorative caged canaries froze to death. The guests were also inconvenienced by the cold. The structure had no heat and the supplies of hot drinks quickly ran out.

Between 1885 and 1909, balls were held in the Pension building.

In 1913, the tradition stopped and would not be revived until Harry S Truman’s inauguration in 1949.

Woodrow Wilson (1913, 1917) thought they were an expensive and unnecessary intrusion into the solemnity of the inauguration. Warren G Harding (1921) agreed to a large party for his inauguration. Calvin Coolidge (1925), Herbert Hoover (1929) and FDR (1933, 1937 and 1941 [none in 1945]) went down the charity ball route.

Following Truman’s example, Eisenhower planned on one inaugural ball in 1953, but demand for tickets was such that a second one was held. For his 1957 inauguration, there were four. John F Kennedy attended five in 1961. Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard Nixon also had inaugural balls.

Jimmy Carter eschewed them for modest parties in 1977. However, Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy attended inaugural balls. In 1997, Bill Clinton attended an all time high of 14. George W Bush’s inaugurations were celebrated at eight balls in 2001 and nine in 2005. Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2001 had ten official balls.

First ladies and inaugural balls

Business Insider — of all places — has a great historical overview of first lady ballgowns and trivia. Ladies will particularly appreciate the full-size photographs of the gowns.

Controversy — Jefferson’s first inauguration

We tend to forget that election results have often been fraught throughout US history.

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation has a fascinating account of his first inauguration in 1801. In a strange parallel to 2016, Jefferson wrote during the campaign of 1800 (emphases mine):

our campaign will be as hot as that of Europe, but happily we deal in ink only; they in blood.” He said the nation’s newspapers were “teeming with every falsehood they can invent for defamation.”

John Adams ran for re-election that year on the Federalist ticket. He:

was labeled a monarchist; Vice President Jefferson was called an atheist; both candidates were declared enemies of the Constitution.

The electoral college provided no relief, either:

Adams was defeated but Jefferson did not win the presidency. Instead, he tied with Aaron Burr, his Republican running mate. The Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1804, would change the process for electing the president and vice president by directing the states to vote separately for each; in 1800, however, the fact that nearly all Republicans recognized Jefferson’s place at the top of the ticket counted for little. The election would be decided in the House of Representatives, where members of the Federalist majority worked to block Jefferson’s election by backing Burr.

Seen in that light, Donald Trump had an easy time of it.

It took 36 ballots over eight days in the House of Representatives before Jefferson had the majority of votes.

The same controversies we are seeing today were also present in 1800 and 1801:

The bitterly contested campaign and the drawn-out election process, plus the predictions of resistance to the new administration and whispers about the possibility of civil war

Jefferson took the opportunity to craft an inaugural speech about national unity.

He walked to the Capitol dressed simply in a suit. His predecessors, Washington and Adams, had put on finery and been transported by carriage. Jefferson preferred to look like ‘a plain citizen’.

The Senate chamber, where he took his oath of office, was packed. The moment was made all the more difficult because:

Noticeably absent was Adams, who had left town in the middle of the night. Jefferson was sworn in by Chief Justice John Marshall, his distant cousin and a staunch political foe.

He gave his address, in part:

“Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle,” Jefferson maintained, and said Americans were, in truth, “brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”[4]Though few people actually heard Jefferson’s address, which one observer said was “delivered in so low a tone” as to be barely audible, the sentiments were not lost.

A spectator who was present, Margaret Bayard Smith, was highly impressed:

This day one of the most amiable and worthy men [has] taken that seat to which he was called by the voice of his country.

Afterwards, Jefferson had dinner, but not with legislators. He returned to the boarding house where he had been staying and ate with his fellow boarders. He lived there for two more weeks, until March 19, at which time he moved into the President’s House.

Donald Trump’s plans

Carrying on from Jefferson’s 1800 campaign, 2016’s was no better.

The New York Times was one of several media outlets publishing hit pieces on Donald Trump. On May 16, political pundit Charles Krauthammer told Fox News:

It looks as if the Times had 50 interviews, spent a lot of money and time, knew it didn’t really have a story, came out exactly with…a story that was nuanced, interesting, but there was nothing scandalous about it.

If this is the best that the Times and the press can do trying to create scandal around Donald Trump, it’s time to plan for the inauguration.

And here we are.

Trump appears to have taken another page out of Jefferson’s notebook. Washington’s WTOP radio reported in December:

The theme is very simple,” Trump inaugural chairman Tom Barrack told ABC News. “The idea is to have a cross cut of harmony of America and normal Americans that reflects on them, not on the power and prestige of this man.”

Trump is also cutting down the number of inaugural balls to three:

“The balls are kind of a confusing quagmire because the states themselves have their own celebratory events,” Barrack said. “We’ll have basically three balls. Two in the [Washington] Convention Center, one called the Commander in Chief ball, which is a traditional military ball. And then we’ll have a series of private dinners.”

It’s a stark contrast from recent inaugurations. Obama attended 10 inaugural balls and former President George W. Bush attended eight inaugural balls to celebrate their first inaugurations.

“This is a workman-like inaugural. This is not a coronation,” inaugural committee spokesman Boris Epshteyn said. “And you’ve seen some inaugurals in the past that maybe did seem like a coronation. Again, it’s every president’s choice. This president wants to get to work.”

The Commander in Chief ball will include guests from law enforcement, firefighters, other first responders and the military.

Just before Christmas, Trump tweeted:

Trump supporters agree, according to the New York Post:

The “blue-collar billionaire” will have a day that’s more befitting the working-class base that put him in the White House: one without fanfare or celebrities or fancy couture (although his wife, Melania, will most certainly be dressed to the nines). Call it the People’s Inauguration, one that celebrates the ordinary American, and that suits his fans just fine.

“They could have zero entertainment at the inauguration, and I really don’t think for one minute that it would matter,” said Leslie Rossi, of Youngstown, Pa., a state that shocked the nation when it switched from blue to red on Election Day.

Even before the election, the Trump International in DC was sold out:

Some lucky Trump supporters managed to get tickets to the swearing-in ceremony.

On January 14, Trump tweeted:

RSBN, which started in Alabama in 2015 and has now relocated to DC, will be providing a live feed of the inauguration. Knowing them, they will broadcast as much of the day as they can:

Newsweek has a full list of events from January 19 through to January 21.

The weather is looking less promising than it did a week ago, but at least the temperatures will be manageable.

Former undercover police officer James Copenhaver has a detailed analysis of what those attending should expect on the day with regard to security.


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