35 Fascinating Facts About Presidential Inaugurations Past
From drunk vice presidents to poisoned pigeons, anything can happen on Inauguration Day—and often does, as these 35 fascinating facts prove.
1. George Washington was inaugurated in two different cities.
Though several presidents have been inaugurated in places other than Washington, D.C., George Washington is the only president to have been inaugurated in two separate cities: On April 30, 1789, Washington took the presidential oath on the balcony of New York City’s Federal Hall. His second inauguration took place on March 4, 1793, at Congress Hall in Philadelphia, which was then the nation’s capital.
2. George Washington had to borrow money to attend his first inauguration.
Though Washington owned a lot of land—more than 50,000 acres of it, in addition to Mount Vernon—he was considered “land poor,” meaning he didn’t always have a lot of cash at his disposal. His bank account was so dry, he actually had to borrow money to travel to New York City for his first inauguration.
3. Inaugurations used to happen in March.
Today, we know January 20 as Inauguration Day, but that wasn’t always the case. Following Washington’s first inauguration, the Continental Congress declared March 4 as Inauguration Day. That date remained in place until the ratification of the 20th Amendment in 1933; Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president inaugurated on the new date, for his second inauguration on January 20, 1937.
4. None of John Adams's family members were present for his inauguration.
5. John Adams was the first president to skip his successor’s inauguration.
For many years, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had been close friends. Together, they’d helped create the Declaration of Independence, worked in Europe as fellow diplomats, and had even stolen a piece of Shakespeare’s favorite chair. (Seriously.)
But as their political careers diverged, the two became rivals. When Jefferson was inaugurated on March 4, 1801, Adams was nowhere to be found. Eight hours before the big event, he’d left Washington and started making his way back to his family farm in Braintree, Massachusetts. This made Adams the first president who chose to skip his successor’s swearing-in ceremony. (History repeated itself 28 years later, when John Quincy Adams boycotted Andrew Jackson’s inauguration. Like father, like son.)
Adams and Jefferson eventually made up when, in 1811, Adams casually told some houseguests, “I always loved Jefferson, and I still love him.” Mutual friends forwarded this comment along to Monticello. Jefferson was thrilled. “I only needed this knowledge to revive towards [Adams] all of the affections of the most cordial moments of our lives,” he proclaimed. Over the next 15 years, the two ex-presidents exchanged more than 150 friendly letters. They both died within hours of each other on the same day—July 4, 1826.
6. Thomas Jefferson walked to and from his first inauguration.
In an effort to demonstrate what he deemed “Republican simplicity,” Jefferson opted to walk to and from his inauguration, which was in stark contrast to the pomp and circumstance displayed by his predecessors. According to the Alexandria Times, Jefferson wore the clothes "of a plain citizen without any distinctive badge of office," and walked from New Jersey Avenue and C Street, where he had been staying at a boarding house, to the Capitol.
7. James Madison hosted the first Inaugural Ball.
8. Dolley Madison was the first First Lady to attend an inauguration.
First Ladies didn’t always hold an important place at the White House. In 1809, Dolley Madison became the first First Lady to even attend her husband’s inauguration. And it took another 150-plus years for the FLOTUS to play a part in the ceremony; in 1965, Lady Bird Johnson held the Bible while the president took the oath of office.
9. John Quincy Adams was the first president-elect to wear long pants to his inauguration.
On March 4, 1825, John Quincy Adams changed the sartorial style by wearing long pants. In previous years, knee breeches were the standard uniform.
10. Zachary Taylor refused to be inaugurated on a Sunday.
In 1849, Zachary Taylor refused to be sworn in on a Sunday, because he was very strict about "keeping holy the Sabbath.” The position of president couldn't just be vacant until Monday, so the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, David Rice Atchison, was brought in as a pinch hitter. There's some debate as to whether this actually makes him the 12th president and Zachary Taylor the 13th, but obviously, it's generally accepted that he doesn't count. He didn't even stake claim to the title, and repeatedly told people that he slept through most of his day as president. He must have had a good sense of humor about the whole thing, though, as evidenced by the inscription on his gravestone.
11. Franklin Pierce wouldn’t “swear” to faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States.
When he was inaugurated on March 4, 1853, Franklin Pierce became the only president to “affirm” the office of the president rather than “swear” it, and did not use a Holy Bible. He did so as he was in the midst of a crisis of faith; he was still reeling from the death of his only son, Benjamin, who had died in a train crash two months earlier.
12. In his inaugural address, James Buchanan announced he wouldn’t run for re-election.
In 1857, James Buchanan began his presidency by announcing he didn't plan to run for a second term. He was true to his word, and maybe that's for the best: He's continually ranked as one of the worst presidents the U.S. has ever had.
13. Andrew Johnson drank a little too much whiskey before his vice presidential inauguration.
When Andrew Johnson was inaugurated as vice president in 1865, he was totally trashed. He was very ill from typhoid fever and drank whiskey to try to numb the aches and pains a little—except he overdid it and ended up slurring his way through his oaths. Then he tried to swear in the new senators, but got too confused and had to let a Senate clerk complete his duties instead.
"The inauguration went off very well except that the Vice President Elect was too drunk to perform his duties and disgraced himself and the Senate by making a drunken foolish speech," Michigan senator Zachariah Chandler wrote to his wife. "I was never so mortified in my life, had I been able to find a hole I would have dropped through it out of sight.”
For his part, Abraham Lincoln defended his VP, assuring the public, “I have known Andrew Johnson for many years. He made a slip the other day, but you need not be scared; Andy ain’t a drunkard.”
14. It was so cold during Ulysses S. Grant’s inauguration, champagne and canaries froze.
Though Ronald Reagan holds the record for coldest-ever Inauguration Day, Ulysses S. Grant’s ceremony—which took place on March 4, 1873—came in second. High winds and a temperature of 16 degrees led to the food (and champagne!) for the reception freezing. So did hundreds of caged canaries, which had been brought in for the festivities.
15. Top hats were once a trend at inaugurations.
Look at enough old inauguration photos and you might notice something: the president-elect is almost always wearing a top hat. For years, one of the odder parts of the pomp and circumstance of the inaugural festivities was that the man about to get sworn in always donned a top hat. It's not clear when or why this tradition started, but it dates back to at least James Garfield's inauguration in 1881. Why it endured long after top hats went out of style is up for debate, although some historians speculate that wearing the formal out-of-date headgear gave the inauguration another little touch of ceremony.
Kennedy was the last president to sport a top hat at his inauguration in 1961. No-nonsense Lyndon Johnson left the fashion statement off the guest list in 1965, thereby depriving the world of what would surely have been hilarious photos of LBJ in a ridiculous hat.
16. Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t sworn in on a bible.
Though a variety of different bibles have been used over the years, when Teddy Roosevelt first took the oath of office on September 14, 1901, there may not have been a bible handy. Roosevelt assumed the role of president following the assassination of William McKinley, and was sworn in at the private home of Ansley Wilcox, who later wrote that, "According to my best recollection no Bible was used, but President Roosevelt was sworn in with uplifted hand."
17. Teddy Roosevelt wore one of Abraham Lincoln’s rings during his inauguration.
For his second inauguration in 1905, Roosevelt wore one of Lincoln's rings. John Hay, Roosevelt's Secretary of State, was also Lincoln's private secretary (he had been only 22 at the time) and was there when Lincoln was assassinated. Hay was given the ring by Mary Todd Lincoln, and he let Roosevelt wear it for the occasion.
18. Warren G. Harding was the first president-elect to arrive at his inauguration via automobile.
Warren G. Harding made history when he was sworn in as president on March 4, 1921, by being the first to travel to and from his inauguration in an automobile. Other than that, Harding kept the event rather low-key; he skipped the parade and opted to have just the swearing-in and a short reception at the White House.
19. Calvin Coolidge’s dad swore him in as president.
Calvin Coolidge had some interesting people swear him in as president. After Warren G. Harding died in office, Coolidge was sworn in by his notary public dad. They were at a farm in Vermont and had to conduct the whole thing by kerosene lamp at 2:47 a.m. on August 3, 1923. (The new President then reportedly went back to bed.) The second time, in 1925, he was sworn in by former president William Howard Taft, who was chief justice of the Supreme Court at the time.
20. A lost boot nearly made Calvin Coolidge late for Herbert Hoover’s inauguration.
In 1929, Calvin Coolidge made eight of his Secret Service people search for a lost boot. It happened to be just as they were headed out the door to successor Herbert Hoover's inauguration; it nearly made them all late.
21. William Henry Harrison talked for nearly two hours.
On March 4, 1841, William Henry Harrison set the record for longest-ever speech when he spent nearly two hours delivering an 8445-word inaugural address. It was a lot of talk for a short-lived presidency; Harrison died one month later.
22. In contrast, George Washington was a man of few words at his inauguration.
Just as famous as Harrison’s long-winded speech is George Washington’s brief address. In 1793, Washington uttered just 135 words after being sworn in as the nation’s first president.
23. For his fourth inauguration, Franklin D. Roosevelt skipped the parade.
January 20, 1945, saw the fourth inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt—the first and only time a president was inaugurated for a fourth term (not long after, the 22nd Amendment declared a two-term maximum). It wasn’t his first rodeo, and the affair was pretty simple. There was no formal celebration following the swearing-in, and there was no parade—though that had more to do with gas and lumber shortages.
24. Harry S. Truman’s inauguration was the first televised ceremony
The entire nation got to take part in Harry S. Truman’s second inauguration; the event, which took place on January 20, 1949, was the first-ever televised inaugural ceremony.
25. The sun messed with the first inaugural poem.
Having a poet read at the inauguration is a relatively new tradition that didn't begin until John F. Kennedy called on Robert Frost to give a reading at his 1961 inauguration. Although Kennedy initially asked Frost to recite his poem "The Gift Outright," Frost decided to jazz things up by writing a completely new poem, "Dedication," for the occasion. Frost's plans went awry when he got up to read his new work, though.
The 87-year-old poet no longer had the greatest eyesight, and the bright sun that morning totally obscured the copy of the poem he was trying to read. Ever quick on his feet, Frost pulled himself together and simply recited "The Gift Outright" from memory. Though the poet was reportedly embarrassed by the gaffe, The Washington Post wrote that Frost “stole the hearts of the Inaugural crowd."
26. Lyndon B. Johnson was the first and only president sworn in on an airplane.
Following the assassination of JFK, Lyndon B. Johnson took the oath of office on November 22, 1963—while flying aboard Air Force One. The oath was administered by Judge Sarah Hughes, who became the first woman to inaugurate a president.
27. Richard Nixon didn’t want any pigeons at his inauguration day parade.
Richard Nixon didn't want his 1973 inauguration to be marred by a bunch of annoying pigeons. He requested that tree branches along the parade route be treated with a chemical called Roost No More, which would supposedly make the birds' feet itch so they wouldn't want to perch above Tricky Dick's motorcade. The inaugural committee spent $13,000 to comply with this anti-pigeon policy, but Nixon got a bit more than he expected. The pigeons didn't just sit on the branches, they wolfed down the Roost No More, which proved to be highly toxic to birds. Instead of dealing with the minor hassle of live pigeons roosting in trees, Nixon's parade was marred by the macabre spectacle of dead and dying pigeons littering the route.
28. There was a Macy’s Parade-like peanut balloon at Jimmy Carter’s inaugural ceremony.
Jimmy Carter’s 1977 inauguration was distinctive for a couple of reasons: First of all, he was the first president to be sworn in by a nickname. Second, his Inauguration Day parade included a Macy's Parade-like balloon of a peanut to celebrate his past.
29. The blueberry Jelly Belly jelly bean was created for Ronald Reagan’s inauguration.
More than three tons of Jelly Belly jelly beans were used in Ronald Reagan's inauguration in 1981. When he was governor of California, he developed a jelly bean habit because he was giving up smoking and the jelly beans helped distract him. He became known for it, so red, white, and blue jelly beans were used for his inauguration celebrations. The blueberry Jelly Belly, in fact, was created just for this purpose.
30. Mother Nature made her presence known at both of Ronald Reagan’s inaugurations.
There must have been something in the air during Reagan’s inaugurations: His first, on January 20, 1981, was the warmest Inauguration Day on record (it was 55°F at noon). Four years later, on January 21, 1985, he hit another weather record—this time for the coldest Inauguration Day on record (it was 7°F out).
31. Bill Clinton became a streaming pioneer at his inauguration.
Bill Clinton’s second inauguration, which took place on January 20, 1997, was the first ceremony to be streamed live on the web.
32. Chuck Norris was a guest at George W. Bush’s 2001 inauguration.
Traditional patriotic anthems sung by a choir of Kentucky youths supplanted the poetry reading at George Bush’s2001 inauguration, but cultural critics seemed more interested in reveling in the relatively low-wattage guests the Bushes rounded up for the event.
The New York Times dryly noted that celebs like Chuck Norris and Meatloaf were slotting in where Hollywood's A-listers had been during the Clinton years. (If the President had needed a roundhouse kick or a melodramatic power ballad, though, he would have been in great shape.) The guest list also included Dixie Carter, Rick Schroder, Norm Macdonald, and David Spade.
33. The kid from Jerry Maguire showed up at George W. Bush’s 2005 inaugural ball.
Bush's second inauguration in 2005 wasn't a complete turnaround, either. While some pundits debated the propriety of throwing an inaugural bash while the country was at war, admirers still flocked to Washington to take part in the hoopla. Again, though, the celebrities didn't quite show up en masse. The Creative Coalition's Inaugural Gala sounds like it would be a star-studded affair, right? That really depends on how highly you rank Jerry Maguire child star Jonathan Lipnicki, Joe Piscopo, Ernie Hudson, Gary Busey, and Joe Pantoliano on your list of stars. Yet this party, according to NBC News, “didn’t come cheap. A single ticket fetched $1000, with VIP tickets and packages ranging from $5000 to $50,000. Singer Macy Gray was performing, and notables expected to show included actors Gary Busey, Richard Belzer, and Daniel Stern.”
34. Barack Obama’s inauguration attracted a record-breaking crowd.
Barack Obama’s first inauguration, on January 20, 2009, broke a few records: In addition to boasting the largest attendance of any presidential inauguration in history, it was also the largest event to ever take place in Washington, D.C. Those who couldn’t make it to the nation’s capital were tuning in, too; it's the internet’s most-watched swearing-in ceremony.
35. Barack Obama has been sworn in four times.
After Chief Justice John Roberts misstated a few words while administering the oath of office to Barack Obama during his first inauguration in 2009, Obama was sworn in again the next day, “out of an abundance of caution." He did it again in 2013, because January 20 fell on a Sunday; he took the oath privately on the 20, then publicly on the 21. It was only the second time in history that a president was sworn in four times; the other was FDR, who served four terms.