7 U.S. Inauguration Day Mishaps

The U.S. Capitol, ready for the 2013 Presidential Inauguration.
The U.S. Capitol, ready for the 2013 Presidential Inauguration. / Ron Cogswell, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The inauguration of a new U.S. President is a day of pomp and ceremony, of solemn oaths and dignified celebrations. But things don’t always go as planned. From drunken speeches to frozen canaries and rampaging roosters at inaugural balls, the day has a fine history of mishaps, mayhem, and mangled oaths.

1. At Andrew Jackson’s inauguration, the celebratory crowd got a bit too rowdy.

In 1829, around 10,000 people came to Washington, D.C., to celebrate the first inauguration of Andrew Jackson. The atmosphere was electric, but things got out of hand when the crowd headed to the White House for the post-inaugural reception. Much to the horror of the finely dressed ladies and gentlemen of the Washington elite, the common folk clambered into the White House, many of them through the windows. They upturned furniture, broke the china, and spilled or consumed the spiked punch. Jackson’s political rivals may well have exaggerated the extent of the destruction, but the White House was overrun. Thankfully, Antoine Michel Giusta, Jackson’s steward, had a bright idea: He had large tubs of whiskey-laced punch placed outside on the lawn, which soon drew the thirsty crowd out of the White House.

2. Vice President-elect Andrew Johnson was drunk when he was sworn in during his inauguration.

Before Abraham Lincoln took to the stage for his second inauguration in March 1865, there was the formality of swearing in Vice President-elect Andrew Johnson. Johnson, unfortunately, had arrived in Washington suffering from typhoid fever—and he was self-medicating with whiskey. He woke on inauguration day feeling weak and hungover, so he decided to drink a tumbler of whiskey to help him through the day. He downed two more before making his speech, by which time he was in no fit state to address the crowd of 50,000 people. He began to ramble, often incoherently, as Lincoln watched on in horror. Johnson somehow made it far enough to take the oath, saying, “I kiss this Book in the face of my nation of the United States.” After the inauguration, the new Vice President laid low. Lincoln defended him, saying “I have known Andy Johnson for many years; he made a bad slip the other day, but you need not be scared; Andy ain't a drunkard.” Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, and Johnson assumed the presidency.

3. Ulysses S. Grant’s inaugural balls never went quite as planned.

Ulysses S. Grant's first inaugural ball in 1869 ended in upper-class chaos. The workers running the coat-check mixed up all the claims, leading to fights and tears among the guests trying to retrieve their jackets and hats. His second inaugural ball in 1873 was an even greater disaster: Near-zero temperatures made it the coldest inauguration on record, but the brave attendees managed to make it through the day. The ball, however, took place in a temporary wooden structure with no heating. People wore their coats while dancing, the food and drink froze, and the musicians struggled to play their instruments. The 100 canaries that had been imported for the occasion all died in the cold.

4. A 13-year-old girl pointed out an error in President Hoover’s inaugural oath.

Chief Justice William H. Taft administering the oath of office to Herbert Hoover.
Chief Justice William H. Taft administering the oath of office to Herbert Hoover. / National Photo Company/Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The inauguration of Herbert Hoover was held on March 4, 1929. Chief Justice William Howard Taft was in charge of swearing in the President, and it all seemed to go without a hitch. But Helen Terwilliger, a 13-year-old from New York, had noticed an error in the oath as she listened on the radio. The Chief Justice had said “preserve, maintain, and defend” instead of the traditional “preserve, protect, and defend,” and Terwilliger wasn’t having it. She sent him a letter. Taft replied, admitting he had made a mistake, but claimed he had said “preserve, maintain, and protect.” This provoked an investigation by a handful of news networks. They checked the footage and proved that Terwilliger was correct, and Taft had been wrong not once but twice.

5. John F. Kennedy’s famous inaugural address had a few hiccups.

John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” address of 1961 is one of the most famous inaugural speeches in history. But it had its share of glitches. Lyndon B. Johnson bungled his vice presidential oath when he said “without any mental reservation whatsoever” rather than “without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion.” Then an electrical fire broke out under the podium during the cardinal’s prayer, which security had to snuff out. Finally, Robert Frost stepped up to read a poem he’d written for the occasion, but he couldn’t read his own words because of the glare of the sun. He struggled on for a while, with great grace and calm, before deciding to recite another of his poems, “The Gift Outright,” from memory.

6. Richard Nixon had some issues with birds at his second inauguration.

Richard Nixon wanted a pigeon-free trip down the National Mall.
Richard Nixon wanted a pigeon-free trip down the National Mall. / Matti Blume, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Before his second inauguration in 1973, Richard Nixon was strangely preoccupied by the large number of pigeons along the National Mall in Washington, D.C. He didn’t want any of them pooping on him as he passed by in his open-top limo, so he had them removed. The U.S. government sprayed the trees with $13,000-worth of a pest spray called Roost-No-More, which created a sticky surface that would keep the birds away. That was the plan, anyway. Instead, the spray killed at least a dozen pigeons, and their corpses lined the motorcade’s route.

Later that day, an angry rooster found its way into Nixon’s inaugural ball, which was held in the Smithsonian Museum of History and Technology. The rooster, which had escaped from an exhibit on early American farm life, crashed the party and pestered the well-heeled guests. It was eventually caught and returned to the exhibit.

7. Barack Obama’s first swearing-in ceremony was a bit of a mess.

When Chief Justice John Roberts first administered the oath of office to Barack Obama in 2009, an unfortunate verbal stumble threw the word “faithfully” out of sequence. Out of “an abundance of caution,” the Chief Justice administered the oath to Obama a second time the next day, this time with the words in the precise ordered laid out in the Constitution. Obama later became the first two-term president to take the oath four times: His second inauguration fell on a Sunday, so he was sworn in during a private ceremony, then publicly the following Monday. The only other President to take the oath four times was Franklin D. Roosevelt, but he had done so by winning a record four presidential elections.