Presidential Inaugurations – Deviations From Tradition

James Madison, President during the War of 1812

Presidential inaugurations proceed according to well-established traditions and customs. The President had the oath administered to him by the Chief Justice on the east portico of the Capital at noon (or as close to noon as possible) on January 20th. Inauguration day was March 4th until 1936, when it was changed to the current date by the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, often called the Lame Duck Amendment. But there have been a number of occasions when tradition and custom were not followed. Many inaugurations were held at other places, on other days and often someone other than the Chief Justice administered the oath of office.

Different Locations

Since 1981, the traditional location for the inauguration has been the west front of the Capitol, which has more room for visitors than the east front which had been the traditional location prior to that date. Prior to that time, fourteen inaugurations took place at locations other than the east portico of the Capital. Most of these were because the Capitol had not been built yet. Also, the capital was in places other than the District of Columbia.

The first inauguration (1789) was held in Federal Hall, on Wall Street in New York City. This building served as the seat of the Congress. By Washington’s second inauguration, the capital had moved to Philadelphia. He was inaugurated for the second time (1793) in Congress Hall, located at Sixth and Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. John Adams was also inaugurated there in 1797.

By the time of Thomas Jefferson’s first inauguration in 1801, the capital had moved to Washington, D.C. Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated in the new capital city in the Senate chamber of the new Capitol building in both 1801 and 1805.

James Madison was inaugurated twice, in 1809 and 1813, in the chamber of the House of Representatives of the Capitol. James Monroe’s first inauguration (1817) was on the east portico of the Capitol, which would become the traditional location in the future. His second inauguration (1821) was again held in the House of Representatives chamber, as was John Quincy Adams (1825) and Andrew Jackson’s second inauguration (1833).

The other regularly planned inaugurations of elected Presidents took place at the traditional site on the east portico of the Capitol until 1909. In that year, William Howard Taft returned the inauguration to the Senate chamber of the Capitol due to the weather. His ambitious wife and Teddy Roosevelt had talked Taft, who had wanted to be Chief Justice instead of President, into running. He was heard to comment before the ceremony that he had always said it would be a cold day when he was inaugurated as President.

Inaugurations then returned to the east portico of the Capitol until 1945. Franklin D. Roosevelt was sworn in for his fourth term on the South Portico of the White House. This change of location was in consideration of his poor health. He died just three months later.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan moved the inauguration ceremony to the west front of the Capitol. In 1985, extremely bitter cold conditions (seven degrees and windy) forced the inauguration to be moved inside at the last moment. It was held in the Capitol Rotunda, the only time it was held there.

So far, we have discussed only those inaugurations of elected Presidents, where there was time to plan the ceremonies. But eight times in our history, a Vice President was suddenly thrust into the Presidency by the death of the elected President. These unscheduled inaugurations took place at a variety of places due to the circumstances involved. Most were inaugurated at places in the District of Columbia, usually the White House. But some were in other cities.

Vice President Chester Alan Arthur was in New York City when he received word of President Garfield’s death. Garfield had been recovering, and for a while was expected to survive. There was even talk of when Garfield would return to the White House and resume his duties. But as continued probing for the missing bullet in his back led to blood poisoning, Garfield weakened and died late in the evening of September 19, 1881. Arthur was in New York City, and was inaugurated there at 2:15 A.M. on September 20, 1881.

In 1901, President McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo, New York. On September 6, 1901, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was having lunch with the Vermont Fish and Game League on Isle La Motte in Lake Champlain when he received word that McKinley had been shot. Roosevelt rushed to the President, but was assured that McKinley was recovering. Roosevelt then joined his family at Camp Tahawus, New York, in the Adirondack Mountains. On September 13, Roosevelt received the news that McKinley was dying. He returned to Buffalo, but President McKinley died before Roosevelt arrived. Theodore Roosevelt was inaugurated in the home of Ansley Wilcox in Buffalo on September 14, 1901.

On August 2, 1923, President Warren Harding died suddenly during a west coast trip. Vice President Calvin Coolidge was visiting his father at his farm home in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. The farm had no phone, so three men (his stenographer Erwin C. Geisser, his chauffer Joseph N. McInerney, and a reporter William H. Crawford) drove from Bridgewater, where they had heard the news of Harding’s death, to notify Coolidge. His father, who was a local justice of the peace and notary public, swore in Calvin Coolidge at 2:47 A.M. on August 3, 1923. After the swearing in, President Coolidge returned upstairs and went back to sleep. Due to the possible legal issues of a state official administering the oath of office, Coolidge was again sworn in eighteen days later in Washington, D.C. by a federal judge.

The most recent inauguration of a President outside Washington, D.C. was in 1963. Vice President Lyndon Johnson was traveling in the same motorcade as President Kennedy when Kennedy was assassinated. Shortly after Kennedy was pronounced dead, Johnson returned to Air Force One at Love Field in Dallas. Due to security fears, the Secret Service did not want to have the new President sitting on the field any longer than necessary. Johnson, realizing the potential problems of the nation being without a President for any longer than necessary, waited until a federal judge could be located, and was inaugurated on the plane in Dallas before returning to Washington, D.C.

Different Officials

Not every President has been sworn in by the Chief Justice of the United States. George Washington obviously wasn’t, since Washington had not yet appointed the first Chief Justice. George Washington was inaugurated in New York City on April 30, 1789. The oath was administered by Robert L. Livingston, Chancellor of New York State. The Chancellor was the head of the New York Court system, making him the highest judge in the new country. On March 4, 1793, George Washington was inaugurated for the second time. William Cushing, who was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, administered the oath.

President William Henry Harrison died after only one month in office. On April 6, 1841, John Tyler was inaugurated. William Cranch, Chief Justice of the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, administered the oath. On July 10, 1850, Cranch again had the honor of swearing in a President when he administered the oath of office to Millard Fillmore following the death of Zachary Taylor.

Chester Alan Arthur was inaugurated on September 20, 1881, following the death of President James Garfield. The oath was administered in New York City by John Brady, a Justice of the New York Supreme Court. Two days later, to make sure it was legal, Arthur was again sworn in by Chief Justice of the United States Morrison Remick Waite in Washington, D.C.

When Theodore Roosevelt was inaugurated following the death of President McKinley, John R. Hazel, a federal District Court Judge, administered the oath.

Calvin Coolidge was sworn in by his father, a local justice of the peace and notary public, in the middle of the night at his farm in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. Coolidge was sworn in for a second time on August 21, 1923, in the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. The oath that second time was administered by Adolph August Hoehling of the District of Columbia Supreme Court.

Lyndon Johnson was the only President, so far, to be sworn in by a woman. Before Air Force One took off for the flight back to Washington, Federal District Judge Sarah T. Hughes administered the oath of office to him.

Different Dates

The last deviation from tradition and custom we will examine is the different dates the oath was taken. Obviously, Vice Presidents assuming the Presidency on the death of the elected President were inaugurated on different dates. But there have been times when the elected President has refused to take the oath on the constitutionally designated date. That was because the specified date fell on a Sunday.

James Monroe delayed taking the oath for his second term until the following day, Monday, March 5th, 1821. Since he was already President, this did not raise any particular issues.

Zachary Taylor put off his inauguration until Monday, March 5, 1849. Since President Polk’s term ended on Sunday, March 4, 1849, this raised the issue of who was actually President. Many people claim that President Pro Tem of the Senate David Rice Atchison, next in line under the Presidential succession law in effect at that time, was acting President for one day between the time James Polk left office, and Zachary Taylor entered office.

Rutherford Birchard Hayes also refused to take the oath of office on a Sunday. Elected after a long and bitter electoral dispute, Hayes agreed to outgoing President Grant’s proposal and took the oath in the Red Room of the White House just before midnight on Saturday, March 3, 1877. He repeated the oath at a public ceremony on Monday, March 5, 1877.

Woodrow Wilson delayed the inauguration ceremonies for his second term until Monday, March 5, 1917.

Dwight David Eisenhower was inaugurated for his second term at a private ceremony on Sunday, January 20, 1957. He was inaugurated again at a public ceremony on Monday, January 21, 1957. Ronald Reagan did the same thing, being inaugurated for a second term at a private ceremony on Sunday January 20, 1985 and repeating the inauguration at a public ceremony on Monday January 21, 1985.

In the next hundred years, inauguration day will fall on a Sunday just twice, in 2013 and 2041.

One last inauguration difference: The Constitution says that the President will “solemnly swear or affirm” his oath of office. Only one President has declined to swear the oath, choosing instead to affirm, Franklin Pierce in 1853.

Over the years, the Presidential inauguration has evolved into the easily recognized ceremony we know today. But the traditions and customs surrounding this important event will continue to change as circumstances require. Regardless of when or where the inauguration is held, and who has the honor of administering the oath, it will continue to be a national celebration and the culmination of the election process which is the hallmark of our democracy.