January is a time of new beginnings, so it seems fitting that the Inauguration of the president of
the United States is held in this month. Here are some interesting historical facts about this important day:
The Inauguration Oath and Address
George Washington’s Inauguration Day ceremony was held on the balcony of New York City’s Federal Hall on April 30, 1789. President Washington, wearing a velvet suit, set a precedent for future inaugurations as he kissed the Bible used to swear him in. (The tradition did not stick however, and normally the president places his left hand on the bible.) Fireworks were bought by many citizens and lit up the sky to celebrate the first inauguration.
John Adams was wearing a modest grey broadcloth suit, without any showy buttons or buckles as he was sworn into office on March 4, 1797. Adams told his wife, Abigail, that receiving the oath from the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Oliver Ellsworth, was “the most affecting and overpowering scene I ever acted in.”
Until the ratification of the 20th Amendment, Inauguration Day was usually held on March 4th. The date was then switched to January 20th, except when that date falls on a Sunday. If it does fall on a Sunday, the president is still sworn in during a private ceremony on Sunday, before taking a public oath the next day.
Thomas Jefferson wore a long coat in a striking shade of blue at his inauguration in 1801. He was the first president to take the oath in the new capital city Washington, D.C.
William Henry Harrison’s inauguration in 1841 proved fatal. Harrison gave the inauguration address outdoors during a snowstorm without wearing a hat, coat, or gloves! His speech is on record as the longest inaugural speech going on for almost 2 hours. After that, he spent a long night at various inauguration balls. All this lead to a deadly case of pneumonia, and President Harrison passed away a month later.
The Army had to use flame throwers to clear the snow on Pennsylvania Avenue on January 20, 1961 for the inaugural of John F. Kennedy! President Kennedy was the last president to wear a stovepipe hat to the inauguration.
The first use of a bullet-proof, closed limousine for the president in the inauguration was on January 20, 1965 for Lyndon B. Johnson.
On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln rested one hand upon the bible while taking his oath to become the 16th president of the United States. In 2009 and 2013, President Obama requested to be sworn into office using the same Lincoln Bible.
Technological advances have definitely changed the nature of Inauguration Day which can now include the entire public. The first inaugural to be covered by telegraph was on March 4, 1845. The first photographed inauguration was at Buchanan’s inauguration in 1857, but the first inauguration to be recorded by a motion picture camera didn’t come until three decades later.
Although all of the inauguration speeches have noteworthy statements, President Ulysses S. Grant’s words on March 4, 1869 are quite interesting: “… I do not share in the apprehension held by many as to the danger of governments becoming weakened and destroyed by reason of their extension of territory. Commerce, education, and rapid transit of thought and matter by telegraph and steam have changed all this.” Can you imagine what he would think of our “rapid transit of thought” now available with our modern devices that has taken the place of telegraph?
The first time telephones were installed on Capitol grounds for the inaugural was on March 4, 1905 when Theodore Roosevelt was being sworn in. The first use of loudspeakers for an inauguration was on March 4, 1921 for President Warren G. Harding. The first radio broadcast was in 1925 at Calvin Coolidge’s inauguration.
The television age really changed things—Harry S Truman’s inauguration address was the first to appear on TV in 1949 with the first color broadcast in 1961 for John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. January 20, 1981 for the inauguration of Ronald Reagan marked the first time closed-caption television broadcasting for the hearing-impaired was available. Bill Clinton’s second inauguration in 1997 marked the first time where it was streamed live over the internet! And at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration in 2013, there was an Inauguration Ceremony app for the iPhone.
The first inauguration parade was held at Thomas Jefferson’s second inauguration in 1805 and was actually a spontaneous parade as Jefferson walked from his boardinghouse to the Capitol building. And the first official parade was held in 1809 at James Madison’s inauguration. He was marched to the Capital by a cavalry troop from Georgetown. Every four years we now enjoy this parade as a highlight of Inauguration Day.
African Americans participated for the first time in the parade at Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration in 1865. And in 1917, at the beginning of Woodrow Wilson’s second term, women joined the celebration.
On March 4, 1921, Warren G. Harding became the first president to ride to and from his inaugural in an automobile (no more carriages)!
Jimmy Carter, the 39th President of the United States, became the first president to walk with his family from the Capitol to the White House in the post-ceremony parade on January 20, 1977. It was also the first time provisions were made for the handicapped to watch the parade.
The Inaugural Ball
The tradition of the Inaugural Ball began with the inauguration of James Madison. From then on the Inaugural Ball was a very anticipated highlight of Washington society!
Ulysses S. Grant’s Inaugural Ball in 1873 was held on a freezing cold night and the temporary structure had no heat or insulation. This led to the event being a disaster. Guests were dancing in their overcoats and hats! The food was cold and they also ran out of coffee and hot chocolate. The decorative caged canaries that were brought in for the party ended up freezing to death.
It was in 1921 when President-elect Warren G. Harding requested that the inaugural committee do away with the elaborate ball and the parade. He wanted to set an example of thrift and simplicity. This led to a huge private party, and then for the next few elections they became charity balls.
President Harry Truman revived the official Inauguration Ball again in 1949! And there have been inauguration balls ever since.
This January as we watch the Inauguration of the 45th President of the United States, remember that you will be viewing history in the making. There may well be other firsts that take place on this day, so keep your eyes open!