Inaugural Absences

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John Adams (1735-1826)

Everyone is familiar with the pomp and ceremony of a presidential inauguration. The procedures and traditions involved are well known. One of the seemingly insignificant traditions that signifies the transfer of power involves the two presidents, incoming and outgoing. Upon arrival at the site of the inauguration, the outgoing president, still the president for several more minutes, is the first to proceed down the aisle, according to his rank, and take his place. He is followed by the president-elect who is about to take the oath of office. After the ceremony is completed, the new president leads the procession leaving the stands, followed by the now-former president.

But this has not always been the case. In fact, several presidents have refused to attend the inauguration of their successor. Two left town the night before the inauguration, and one sat in the White House until noon, and then left town.

The first absent president was John Adams, our second president. He was defeated by Thomas Jefferson in a close race in 1801. It had been a very bitter campaign, in which the followers of both men hurled outrageous accusations at the opposing candidate. Adams and Jefferson had been very close politically and personally for many years. They had served in the Continental Congress together, where Adams had been the chairman of the committee to write the Declaration of Independence and appointed Jefferson to write the draft of the document for which he became famous. The outcome of the election was not decided until South Carolina cast its electoral votes in December 1800. President John Adams took his defeat very hard. Also in December, he had learned of the death of his son, Charles in New York.

Shortly after the election, but before the inauguration, President John Adams and President-elect Thomas Jefferson had an awkward meeting during a levee at the White House. According to witnesses, President Adams snapped at Jefferson, “You have put me out! You have put me out!” Jefferson then reminded Adams that it was the electoral system created by Adams Federalist supporters, and not Jefferson or his supporters, that had ended Adams’ administration. Adams calmed down, and their next meeting, on the streets of Washington, went much better.

The night before the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson, the lights burned late in the White House. President Adams’ belongings were packed into several wagons, and at four in the morning, President and Mrs. Adams boarded their coach and left the city. President Adams, taking his defeat personally, could not bring himself to attend the festivities attached to his defeat. Some historians have put forth the notion that the long and difficult journey back to Massachusetts required the early start. However, that early start could have been made a day earlier, if it was indeed necessary at all. Adams had escaped the hot summers of Washington by staying at his home in Massachusetts, as was the custom of most of the early presidents, and had never felt the need to start the trip to New England at such an early hour.

Interestingly, the next president to skip the inauguration of his successor was John Adams’ son, President John Quincy Adams in 1829. He had been defeated by Andrew Jackson by a large margin. The campaign of 1828 was probably the most bitter in our history. President Adams was accused of everything from procuring prostitutes for the Czar of Russia while he was minister there to misusing government funds to buy gaming tables and gambling devices. The later charges stemmed from Adams’ purchases of a billiard table and a chess set, for which he reimbursed the government. Accusations against Jackson stemmed from his marriage to his wife Rachel before her divorce became final, due to confusion created by her spiteful husband who had notified her the divorce was final when it wasn’t. Rachel Jackson died shortly after the election but before the inauguration, and Andrew Jackson was still in mourning for his beloved wife when he arrived in Washington. He blamed Adams’ followers for the death of his wife, who died of a heart attack after a campaign of extremely personal charges against her character made by Jackson’s political opponents hoping to goad him into rash actions in defense of his wife.

During the days before the inauguration of Andrew Jackson, wagons were constantly shuttling between the White House and the mansion on Meridian Hill that Adams had rented after he and his wife decided to remain in Washington. During his lame-duck period (between the election and the inauguration of his successor), President Adams and his wife remained in the White House, trying not to notice the continuous celebrations being held to honor Jackson’s victory, and Adams’ defeat. After moving to his rented house on March 3rd, the day before the inauguration, they remained in their mansion. He did not attend or participate in any of the inaugural festivities.

In the next article, we will conclude with Andrew Johnson and his bitter feud with Ulysses S. Grant, the result of which was Johnson’s refusal to even ride with Grant to the inauguration.

The third President to refuse to attend his successor’s inauguration and the democratic transfer of power was President Andrew Johnson. After being elected Vice President in 1864, he became President only six weeks after taking the oath of office as Vice President, the result of President Lincoln’s assassination. To say he had a tumultuous term would be an understatement.

Andrew Johnson was the first president to be impeached, and survived the impeachment trial by one single vote. Part of that political contest involved the man who would succeed Johnson, General Ulysses S. Grant.

Johnson was determined to carry out Lincoln’s Reconstruction plans, bringing the southern states back into the Union as quickly as possible. Radical Republicans in Congress opposed Johnson’s plans, wanting to keep the southern states under military (and Radical) control. They felt that the southern states had committed political suicide and were no longer states; they were now territories again, and under Congressional control.

After the mid-term elections in 1866, the Radicals found themselves in overwhelming control of both houses of Congress. They sought to use their advantage to control Johnson. One of the acts they passed was the Tenure of Office Act. This law declared that any position that required Senate confirmation of the appointment also required Senate confirmation before the official could be dismissed. This meant that Johnson could not control his own cabinet. Johnson sought to test the constitutionality of the Tenure of Office Act by firing his Radical and disloyal Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.

Stanton refused to be fired, claiming that Johnson was acting illegally under the terms of the Tenure of Office Act. Stanton actually barricaded himself in his office and refused to leave it. Johnson countered by suspending Stanton and appointing as interim Secretary of War the one man no one dared to oppose, Ulysses S. Grant.

Grant served as interim Secretary of War until Congress reconvened. On January 13, 1868, the Senate passed a resolution declaring that the removal of Stanton was not legal and, although being very careful not to criticize General Grant, ordered Stanton reinstated. Grant relinquished the office and returned to his army duties. This began the feud in earnest.

Johnson wrote an angry letter to Grant accusing Grant of breaking his word. Johnson felt that Grant knew what role he had been meant to play and backed out under pressure from Congress. Johnson implied that Grant deserted him, caring more about the upcoming Republican Presidential nomination than doing what was right for his country.

Grant responded that he considered Congress, and not the President, the final authority in the matter, and that he had never given the President any intimation that he would violate the law to support him. Grant concluded his letter, written on February 3, 1868, saying, “And now, Mr. President, when my honor as a soldier and integrity as a man have been so violently assailed, pardon me for saying that I can but regard this whole matter from beginning to end as an attempt to involve me in a resistance of law for which you hesitated to assume the responsibility, and thus destroy my character before the country.”

This was not the first clash between the two men. Shortly after the end of the Civil War, President Johnson sought to have Robert E. Lee arrested for treason, contrary to the surrender terms signed at Appomattox. Grant was furious that Johnson would even think about violating the term of the surrender that represented the nation’s solemn word of honor. When Lee appealed to Grant for help, Grant intervened on Lee’s behalf. He threatened to take his case to the people if the President did not drop his attempt to have Lee arrested. Johnson backed down, and Lee was not arrested.

Grant was elected in 1868 to succeed Johnson as President. The two had not reconciled by the time Grant was inaugurated President on March 4, 1869. President Johnson refused to ride with Grant, and therefore was not present at Grant’s inauguration.

Of course, some Presidents attended their successors inaugurations, only to wish they hadn’t. President Fillmore attended the inauguration of his successor, Franklin Pierce, on a cold day. Fillmore’s wife, Abigail, caught a cold that day, which turned into pneumonia from which she died shortly after.

Almost all of our Presidents have attended the inauguration of their successors, participating in the peaceful transfer of power that marks the history of our democratic system of government. Those few who have chosen not to can be forgiven, based on the personal nature of their reasons and the fact that their absences have caused no real problems for our republic.