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By now you no doubt have heard that President Donald Trump will skip President-Elect Joe Biden’s inauguration next Wednesday. Given Trump’s role in inciting last week’s mob attack on the Capitol Building, that decision is no doubt for the best. However, it breaks a tradition that has come to symbolize a core democratic principle, namely, the orderly and peaceful transfer of power. The good news on that front is that Vice President Mike Pence will attend the inauguration.
Trump’s decision makes him the first president in more than 150 years, and just the fifth president in history, to skip his successor’s swearing-in for reasons other than ill-health. The other four were John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, and Andrew Johnson. The two Adamses lost bitter elections to their successors, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson respectively. (The elder Adams eventually reconciled with Jefferson; the younger Adams never reconciled with Jackson.) No one seems to know why Van Buren didn’t attend William Henry Harrison’s inauguration; there doesn’t appear to have been any rancor between the two men. Johnson did not run for reelection—remember, he was the first president to be impeached. However, he and his successor, Ulysses S. Grant, detested each other. Indeed, Grant said he would not ride in the same carriage with Johnson to the inaugural ceremony when it looked like Johnson might attend.
The only president since 1869 not to attend the inauguration of his elected successor was Woodrow Wilson. He had a good reason for missing the swearing in: a stroke had left him too infirm to climb the stairs to where the ceremony was being held. Even then, he rode with President-Elect Warren Harding to Capitol Hill. And if you wish to be hyper-technical, Richard Nixon did not attend the swearing-in of Gerald Ford. But then again, Ford wasn’t elected.
This Inauguration Day will be far more somber and tense than usual—with Washington observing unprecedented security measures and the traditional parade going virtual. But it is still a day worth celebrating. In that spirit, here are ten lesser-known facts about presidential inaugurations.
1. Joe Biden will be sworn in as the forty-sixth U.S. president, but he will be only the fortieth person to give an inaugural address. John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur, and Ford were all vice presidents who ascended to the presidency after the death or resignation of a president. They never won an election on their own, so they never gave an inaugural address. Grover Cleveland held two nonconsecutive terms as president, and as a result, he is counted as the twenty-second and twenty-fourth president of the United States.
2. All but two elected presidents took the oath of office in Washington. Washington, DC, did not become the nation’s capital until 1800, just before Thomas Jefferson was sworn in president. George Washington was sworn into office for his first term in Federal Hall in New York City in 1789, because what we know today as the Big Apple was the first home of the U.S. government. The capital moved to Philadelphia the next year, so Washington was sworn into office for his second term in the Senate Chamber of Congress Hall in the City of Brotherly Love in 1793. John Adams was sworn in as president in the House Chamber in Congress Hall in Philadelphia in 1797. (Several vice presidents have taken the oath of office outside of Washington, DC, after the death of the president.)
3. The presidential oath of office is written into the U.S. Constitution. Article II, Section I of the Constitution stipulates: “Before he [the president] enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:—“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.” Even though the oath is only thirty-five words long, presidents and chief justices can get it wrong. Just ask Barack Obama and John Roberts.
4. One person has taken the presidential oath of office and administered it. William Howard Taft was sworn in as America’s twenty-seventh president on March 4, 1909. A dozen years later he was sworn in as the tenth chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. During his nine-year stint as chief justice, he issued the oath of office to Calvin Coolidge (1925) and Herbert Hoover (1929). Taft holds two other distinctions. He was America’s heaviest president, tipping the scales at more than 300 pounds. He was also the last president to sport facial hair, in his case, a handlebar moustache.
5. More presidents have been inaugurated in March than in January. Thirty-six inaugurations have been held in March. With Biden’s inauguration, twenty-two will have been held in January. Until 1937, presidents were inaugurated on March 4. (The public inaugural ceremonies were generally moved to March 5 when Inauguration Day fell on a Sunday.) The Twentieth Amendment moved Inauguration Day to January 20 (the public ceremony can be moved to January 21 in years that Inauguration Day falls on a Sunday, as happened with Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural in 1985). FDR’s second inauguration was the first to be held in January. The only elected president not to be inaugurated in either January or March was George Washington. His first inaugural took place on April 30, 1789.
6. John F. Kennedy was the last president to wear a top hat to his inauguration. Wearing top hats to the inauguration ceremony used to be tradition. Presidents from Franklin Pierce through Harry Truman donned them. Dwight Eisenhower broke the trend by opting for the less formal homburg. JFK went back to the stovepipe hat for his inauguration, though he took it off while he swore his oath of office and gave his inaugural address. No president since has donned a top hat on Inauguration Day. Biden isn’t likely to break that streak.
7. Lyndon B. Johnson was the first president to ask his wife to hold the Bible while he took the oath of office. Before LBJ, the executive secretary of the Joint Congressional Inaugural Committee traditionally held the Bible while the president swore his oath. Johnson asked his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, to do it. Every president since has followed suit.
8. The inauguration of James Buchanan on March 4, 1857, is the first one known to have been photographed. Other technological firsts for presidential inaugurations include the first to be filmed (William McKinley in 1897), the first to use loudspeakers (Warren Harding in 1921), the first broadcast on radio (Calvin Coolidge in 1925), the first broadcast on television (Harry Truman in 1949), the first broadcast in color (John F. Kennedy in 1961), and the first delivered over the internet (Bill Clinton in 1997).
9. The coldest Inauguration Day was Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration. The temperature at noontime in Washington, DC, on January 21, 1985, was 7 degrees—or 62 degrees colder than on the day of Reagan’s first inauguration. It was so cold that Reagan took the oath of office indoors at the U.S. Capitol—he had already taken the oath of office in a small, private ceremony at the White House the day before—and the traditional inaugural parade was canceled. The forecast for Washington next Wednesday is partly cloudy with temperatures in the mid-forties.
10. The shortest inaugural address was a lot shorter than this blog post. George Washington’s second inaugural address ran just 135 words—or about the length of two recitations of the Lord’s Prayer. This blog post, by comparison, runs 1,273 words.
Anna Shortridge assisted in the preparation of this post.