The Intriguing History of Presidential Inaugurations

Presidential inaugurations have a long, and storied history in America. As the United States ushers in a new president (after an almost surreal election campaign), it is worth looking back to past inaugurations in a means to discover interesting, weird, and profound facts that have made presidential inaugurations so important and captivating. The world is often beguiled (and similarly bewildered) by US election and presidential politics which can be particularly confusing from afar. The leader of the free world carries a certain clout that demands attention, but when examined in its constituent parts, the history of inaugurations in America offers some very eye-opening and useful tidbits of information that decodes some of the lore of the Office of the President of the United States. That history is very much a window looking in on America’s years of formation, rise, and dominance in the world.

First and foremost, presidential inaugurations were neither as well attended, watched, or covered by the media as they are today. It is hard not to imagine hundreds of thousands (and in some cases millions) of people descending on Washington D.C. Inaugurations have, in contemporary society, taken on an air of historical importance. The first presidential inauguration on April 30, 1789 – while filled with fanfare, public celebration, and even fireworks – was held without precedent making it somewhat of an adlib affair. The first and second presidential inaugurations for George Washington didn’t even take place in Washington D.C. at all – having become the official seat of the government only in 1800. George Washington’s first inauguration took place on the portico of Federal Hall in New York City, which was the capital at the time. The second presidential inauguration occurred in Philidelphia at Congress Hall in 1793 so the pomp and circumstance of Capital Hill in Washington D.C. had more modest traditions in two other American cities.

It is interesting to note that George Washington’s journey from his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia to New York City for the ceremony took 7 days. Towns and hamlets along the way greeted the newly-elected President with spontaneous celebration and cheering as he passed through on his way to New York. When Washington did arrive in New York, he was shuttled across the Hudson on a barge right into Lower Manhattan. What a sight that must have been! Washington, who had the presidency largely thrust upon him, had a shaky performance on the big day with trembling hands, the juggling of papers nervously, and moments in which it appeared he had forgotten his speech. Still, without hesitation, cheers could be heard among the assembled crowds as cannons and fireworks signaled the new president and the Father of the Nation.

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The Arrival of General George Washington at the Battery, New York, April 30, 1789, engraved by John C. McRae, after Henry Brueckner (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association). Retrieved from: http://www.mountvernon.org/the-estate-gardens/museum/recently-featured/.

It would appear that by the time of Washington’s second inauguration his way with words had shortened.  At only 135 words, George Washington’s second inaugural address remains the shortest on record for a president. Parties (the celebratory kind) still traditionally followed the inauguration, but even George Washington’s wife, Lady Martha Washington, was not to be outdone by the President. The First Lady had 11 days of celebration and parties, 3 more than her husband the president. It has been said that there were so many people crammed outside of Federal Hall in New York City in 1789 for the first inauguration, that Washington had to walk home after the celebration because no horse or carriage could make it through the packed crowds. Even presidents had moments of humble reflection.

Speaking of parties, elected officials can sometimes party a little harder than they should. At the second inauguration of Abraham Lincoln in 1864, his Vice-President, Andrew Johnson, decided to attend in a drunken stupor. The crowds watched and listened nervously to the Vice-President’s rambling speech that had to be cut short. The VPs traditional role of swearing in newly elected Senators was also handed off to a senate clerk to spare Johnson any further embarrassment. President Lincoln was later questioned about the incident, remarking: “…Andy ain’t a drunkard.” Johnson’s love of the drink may or may not have been exaggerated (opposition parties often leveled strong accusations, and lies, at political opponents), but after Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865 Johnson was said to have been found heavily inebriated with mud caked to his hair after being passed out in the street. Johnson was quickly cleaned up before being sworn in as President of the United States that same day.

Whiskey may be the cure for ‘many’ ailments, but sometimes the weather can also put a damper on presidential inaugurations and celebrations. At President Ulysses S. Grant’s inaugural ball it was thought that hundreds of canaries would provide for a cheerful touch to the festivities. However, due to extremely cold temperatures the evening before the inauguration, almost 100 canaries froze to death before the party could even get started. Birds would come to haunt another presidential inauguration when chemicals were used to disperse pigeons from Nixon’s presidential parade route, leaving dozens of dead birds strewn along the way. Weather can be such a big factor during inaugurations, that Mother Nature even had a hand in ending a presidency. At the inauguration of William Henry Harrison in March of 1841, Harrison decided to forgo an overcoat, hat, and gloves while delivering his two-hour long inauguration speech. One month after being sworn in, Harrison contracted pneumonia and died, giving him the dubious honour of having one of longest inauguration speeches and one of the shortest presidencies. The moral of the story is always listen to your mom when she tells you to wear your jacket.

The 1829 election campaign between John Adams and Andrew Jackson was one of the nastiest on record. While the campaign rhetoric during the election of  Donald J. Trump is rightly considered nasty and cruel, few elections can compare to that of Andrew Jackson. The campaign itself was so harsh with accusations and ruthless insults that Jackson’s wife died shortly after he won the 1829 election, having been the target of unfounded accusation of her fidelity and background. A tragic beginning to Jackson’s presidency. As a part of the festivities celebrating Jackson’s victory over John Quincy Adams, Jackson opened the White House to party goers without much thought to the space limitations that 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. offered. So many people descended on the White House that furniture was stolen, broken, and vandalized forcing President Jackson to leave the White House through a back window. There is even a strange story about a 1,400-pound wheel of cheese that sat at the White House for a few years (a story for a future post) and was consumed by ravenous guests during another raucous night at the White House. With the White House bursting at the seems order could only be restored when tubs full of “punch” were moved to the front lawn. If anything, Jackson knew how to host a party.  Similarly, President Lincoln also hosted legendary parties where the police were called in to manage the crowds.

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A Depiction of a raucous party at the White House following Andrew Jackson’s inauguration.

Inaugurations have always been the paramount moment of political transitions in America. Regardless of the many eccentric, absurd, and wacky moments that may have occurred since 1789, the swearing in of new presidents continue to dazzle and enthrall people from around the world. Inaugurations validate the handover of power and the democratic processes that are the linchpin of a strong democracy. Inaugurations are also celebrations of American history, folklore, traditions, and visions of greatness. Witnessing the peaceful transition of power provides a sense of security and continuity. New presidents often use the moment of their inauguration to spell out grand and lofty ideas for the nation’s future. Those visions frequently fall short, but the ushering in of a new president is always remembered for the pomp and circumstance that characterizes the most powerful position in the free world.

Joseph Imre
e-Storia Blog

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