23 Things You Didn't Know About Presidential Inaugurations

Obama Inauguration 2009

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Obama Inauguration 2009
Alex Wong/Staff/Getty Images News/Getty Images North America

Presidential Trivia

The inauguration of a US president has been a quadrennial tradition (occurring once every four years, at least) since 1789, the year after the Constitution was ratified. Our founding document, however, says decidedly little about what the ceremony should entail, aside from the mandatory recitation of the oath of office. As a result, there's been a lot more procedural variation in presidential inductions throughout our history than most Americans might expect. This slideshow will run through some of the most interesting or even downright bizarre details from inaugurations across the years in mostly chronological order. 

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George Washington Inauguration
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Improvising the First Inauguration

As the first presidency, George Washington's tenure set a lot of precedents for his predecessors right from the very start. During his inauguration on April 30 in New York, then the seat of the US government, a Bible had to be hastily procured from the nearby St. John's Lodge, and was opened to the random passage of Genesis 49:13 while Washington took the oath of office. He also reportedly affirmed the oath by adding, "So help me God," which almost all presidents since have repeated. 

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John Adams
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Ditching Their Successors' Inauguration

1801, 1829, & 1869
John Adams became the first one-term president after losing the election to his longtime colleague and political rival Thomas Jefferson. He then skipped Jefferson's inauguration on March 4, 1801, leaving Washington eight hours earlier to return to his family farm in Massachusetts. 

Twenty-eight years later, his son John Quincy Adams would follow suit not only in losing a second term as president, but in boycotting the induction of his successor Andrew Jackson. Finally, President Andrew Johnson angrily occupied himself with one last cabinet meeting during his successor Ulysses S. Grant's inauguration.

Thomas Jefferson inauguration
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Walking To and From the Inauguration

1801 & 1977
Jefferson made what he considered a statement of "Republican simplicity" by walking rather than taking a carriage to and from his first inauguration in modest attire, foregoing the earlier ceremonies' level of pomp and circumstance. 

More than a century and a half later, Jimmy Carter would send a similar message of closeness to the common people during his inauguration, both by wearing an inexpensive $175 suit and stepping out of the limousine motorcade to walk part of the inaugural parade route with his family. Most presidents since have followed his example of walking for at least a portion of their procession to the White House. 

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James Monroe inauguration
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The First Outdoor Inauguration

The first inauguration of the 5th President James Monroe was also the first to take place outside, simply because Congress couldn't agree on how to conduct it inside. The ceremony was initially scheduled for the House chamber, but House Speaker Henry Clay was so bitter about not being chosen as Monroe's Secretary of State he refused to allow it. 

Following a disagreement between the House and Senate over whose chairs would be used, Monroe got fed up and decided to conduct his inauguration outside, unattended by Clay. All but three inaugurations since (when weather intervened) have been held outdoors.

John Quincy Adams
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Foregoing the Bible for the Law

1825 & 1853
The Constitution makes no requirement of what book the oath of office should be sworn on, so John Quincy Adams, by his own recollection, placed his hand on a book of law rather than the standard Bible. Another confirmed instance when the Bible wasn't used took place in 1853, when Franklin Pierce "affirmed" rather than swore his oath on a law book. The reason why is generally attributed as a crisis of faith following the gruesome death of his 11-year-old son less than two months earlier. 

Related: Cheap American Presidents Throughout History

Andrew Jackson inauguration
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A White House Rager

After winning one of the most bitter campaigns in American history, the populist Andrew Jackson came to his inauguration on foot, then celebrated with a post-ceremony reception at the White House open to all. The number of attendees and their conduct got out of hand even before Jackson himself could arrive, though the finer details of how are often disputed. 

With the crowd becoming increasingly drunk, they were lured to disperse by bowls of punch and liquor placed on the White House's front lawn, but not before defacing some of the upholstery and destroying several thousand dollars' worth of fine china. Jackson eventually escaped the commotion by leaving out a window or side entrance to Gadsby's Hotel in Alexandria. 

William Henry Harrison
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The Longest Address for the Shortest Presidency

The cold and rainy weather wasn't enough to stop 9th President William Henry Harrison from delivering the longest inaugural address in American history, amounting to 8,500 words over nearly two hours. Possibly because he also refused to wear a coat for the occasion, Harrison soon came down with a cold that later developed into pneumonia, then died only 30 days into his first term. Though it's now disputed how the weather and his attire at the inauguration may have played into Harrison's cause of death, the chain of events still makes for a memorable anecdote.

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President Millard Fillmore
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The Inaugural Orphans

1841, 1850, 1865, 1881, & 1974
A total of five US Presidents actually never won election to the office, and so never enjoyed any of the larger inauguration celebrations typical to other presidencies. Vice Presidents John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, and Gerald Ford all inherited the office of President when their predecessors died or, in Ford's case, resigned, then failed to win election for a full term afterwards. 

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David Rice Atchison
Wikimedia Commons

President for a Day

There is one President who served an even shorter term than Harrison, if it can even count. When President-elect Zachary Taylor refused to be sworn in on the then-standard date of March 4, citing that it was a Sunday, the Christian sabbath, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate David Rice Atchison stepped up to occupy the position in the interim between the elected commanders-in-chief. He reportedly joked that he had slept through most of his single day as President. 

1865 Lincoln inauguration
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A Drunk Vice President

Before Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration, his Vice President Andrew Johnson had been drinking to excess to numb the pains of his typhoid fever. As a result, he ended up slurring his own oaths of office, then abandoning his attempt to swear in the new congressmen to a Senate clerk instead. While Senator Charles Sumner described Johnson's drunken rambling as "the most unfortunate thing that had ever occurred in our history" (during the Civil War!), Lincoln later assured the public, "Andy ain't a drunkard."

1865 Lincoln inauguration crowd
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An Assassin in the Audience

On a darker note from the same date, actor John Wilkes Booth was later found to be present in photos of the crowd surrounding Lincoln while he delivered his inaugural address. Booth would famously shoot and kill Lincoln in Ford Theater only one month later. 

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Ulysses S. Grant inauguration
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A Frozen Feast

President Ulysses S. Grant's first inauguration day was one of the coldest in US history, with temperatures of 16 degrees Fahrenheit that felt more like -15 to -30 due to winds. Flags froze along Pennsylvania Avenue while ambulances waited on hand to transport frostbitten military cadets to the hospital. The temporary structure erected for the inaugural ball wasn't equipped for the weather either, so guests had to put up with frozen food, champagne, and canaries, hundreds of which were brought in cages to sing for the festivities. 

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Theodore Roosevelt inauguration
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Using Lincoln's Ring and Bible

1905 & 2008
After ascending to the presidency following William McKinley's assassination in office in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt commemorated his second, more formal inauguration in 1905 by wearing a ring formerly owned by Abraham Lincoln and containing a lock of his hair. Considering himself Lincoln's ideological inheritor, Roosevelt obtained the ring from his secretary of state John Hay, who had served as Lincoln's private secretary and received the ring from Mary Todd Lincoln. 

In another inaugural tribute to the late president, Barack Obama chose to take his first oath of office in 2009 using the same bible Lincoln had for his in 1861. For the inauguration of his next term in 2013, Obama deepened this symbolic gesture by swearing his oath on two bibles, the Lincoln bible as well as a "travelling bible" once belonging to Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. 

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Calvin Coolidge inauguration
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A Father Swears in His Son

When President Warren G. Harding died in office, his vice president Calvin Coolidge had to be sworn in as his replacement by kerosene lamplight in the middle of the night. At 2:47 a.m. in his family's Vermont homestead, Coolidge had his oath of office administered by his father, John Calvin Coolidge Sr., a notary public and justice of the peace. 

1925 William Howard Taft and Calvin Coolidge
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A Former President Swears in His Successors

1925 & 1929
After serving just one term as president, William Howard Taft was appointed as Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court for a decade from 1921 to 1930. In this role, he became the only former president to administer the oath of office to his successors, at the inaugurations of both Calvin Coolidge in 1925 and Herbert Hoover in 1929. 

Related: Surprising Personal Facts About Supreme Court Justices

Franklin D. Roosevelt inauguration 1937
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Setting the Date

It took more than a century after the Constitution was ratified to finally set a formal date for the presidential inauguration. After Washington's first inauguration, the Continental Congress declared March 4 as the standard date. This remained the norm until passage of the 20th amendment in 1933, which set inauguration day as January 20, made possible by technological advances in vote counting capabilities. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president to take his oath on the new, official date in 1937.

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John F. Kennedy top hat
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End of the Inaugural Top Hat

For much of American history, it was an unofficial tradition for presidents-elect to sport a top hat for their inauguration. The trend dates back at least to James Garfield's inauguration in 1881, but it ended decisively with John F. Kennedy's in 1961, long after the headgear had gone out of style. 

After his predecessor Dwight D. Eisenhower had declined to wear a top hat, Kennedy was met with both praise and criticism for bringing it back, but he took it off as often as he wore it during the ceremony, and every president since has gone topless for their inauguration.

Robert Frost 1961 inauguration
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Flubbing the First Inaugural Poem

The top hat was far from the only topic of conversation from Kennedy's inauguration. During the invocation, the lectern started spewing smoke and nearly caught fire from an electrical short circuit inside. Later in the ceremony, Robert Frost was called on to deliver the nation's first inaugural poem, but the sun's glare prevented the then 87-year-old from being able to read his own original work. He course corrected by reciting his existing poem, "The Gift Outright," from memory, but nonetheless misspoke by dedicating it "to the president-elect, Mr. John Finley."

Lyndon B. Johnson and Ladybird Johnson 1965 inauguration
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The First Lady Finds a Part in the Proceedings

No First Lady even attended her husband's inauguration until Dolley Madison in 1809. Then in 1965, the President's spouse gained a more prominent ceremonial role in the proceedings when Lyndon B. Johnson's wife Ladybird held the bible for his oath of office. This has become a tradition for every inauguration since. 

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1973 Nixon inauguration
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Both of Richard Nixon's inaugurations were marred by protesters throwing stones, but his second in 1973 had an extra macabre twist. In an effort to keep pigeons from pooping into his open-top limo, Nixon's inaugural committee spent $13,000 to treat tree branches above the parade route with a chemical repellent called Roost No More. But instead of avoiding it, the pigeons were poisoned by gobbling it up, resulting in dozens of avian carcasses littering the parade route.

Ronald Reagan jellybeans
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All the President's Jellybeans

During his tenure as California's governor, Ronald Reagan developed a habit of wolfing down jellybeans to help himself quit smoking. For his first inaugural festivities in 1981, three-and-a-half tons of Jelly Belly beans were shipped to D.C., specifically in the colors of red (very cherry), white (coconut), and blue (blueberry), a flavor invented just for the occasion.  

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Obama Inauguration 2009
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Sworn In Four Times

2009 & 2013
Only two people have been sworn in as US President four times: Franklin D. Roosevelt and Barack Obama. While FDR was actually elected four times (influencing the two-term limit set by the 22nd amendment in 1951), the 44th President owes his extra two oaths to a misstatement and a scheduling conflict. 

At the 2009 inauguration, Chief Justice John Roberts misplaced the word "faithfully" in leading the recitation, so the next day he and Obama privately repeated the wording again, faithfully, "out of an abundance of caution." In 2013, January 20 fell on a Sunday, so he took the oath of office privately and officially first on the 20th, then publicly and ceremonially on the 21st. 

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2009 Obama inauguration crowd
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The Crowd-Measuring Contest

2009 & 2017
The crowd of approximately 1.8 million gathered for Barack Obama's first inauguration on January, 20, 2009, broke records for attendance to any presidential inauguration or other event in Washington, D.C.'s history. The crowd of 600,000 at most gathered for Donald Trump's inauguration on January 20, 2017, was the biggest since Bill Clinton's 800,000 in 1993. 

Despite these estimates, the White House press secretary said Trump's crowd was "the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe." While other spokespeople cited false evidence to back up this assertion, Trump personally directed the National Parks Service to crop aerial photos of the National Mall to make his crowd size appear larger than Obama's, setting the tone of the Administration's adversarial relationship to both the press and Trump's predecessor.  

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