Inauguration Day History and Fun Facts
Enjoy some Inauguration Day history, fun facts, and firsts. Who was the first president to be inaugurated on January 20? Who had the longest inaugural address (and died soon after)? Take a look at presidential inaugurations through time—plus, enjoy some favorite presidential foods to mark the occasion.
What Does “Inauguration” Mean?
The word “inauguration” means “beginning” and comes from the ancient practice of augury, which means predicting the future. The day marks the start of a president’s term in office.
When Was the First Inauguration?
Inauguration Day falls on January 20 in the year following a presidential election. In 2021, Inauguration Day takes place on Wednesday, January 20. It will mark the 59th Presidential Inauguration in American history, a tradition begun on April 30, 1789, by George Washington, the first U.S. president.
The Constitution originally fixed March 4 (the anniversary of the effective date of the Constitution in 1789) as Inauguration Day. That’s about 4 months after Election Day (which occurs on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November).
Inauguration Day was moved to January 20, with the Oath of Office to be administered at noon, when Congress ratified the 20th constitutional amendment in 1933. Reasons cited included the improved roads and transportation, the unpredictability of March weather, and the desire to reduce the time that the previous president remains in office as a “lame duck.”
In years when Inauguration Day falls on a Sunday, the new president is sworn in at a private ceremony on January 20, and the public ceremony is postponed to January 21.
First Inauguration Day on January 20?
The first president to be inaugurated on January 20 was Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937, when he took office for the second of his four terms.
On six occasions, there were no formal Inauguration Days because of the death or resignation of a president; instead, the oaths were quickly taken.
Where is the Inauguration Day Held?
Most presidential inaugurals have taken place in Washington, D.C., on the western side of the Capitol.
Thomas Jefferson was the first president to take his oath at the Capitol, in 1801. Before this, the oath had been taken in New York City and in Philadephia. Each city was, at the time, the nation’s capital.
Most inaugurations take place outside; James Monroe became the first president to take the oath outdoors, in front of the Old Brick Capitol.
Lyndon B. Johnson was the first and only president to take the oath of office on an airplane, after John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963.
What Happens on Inauguration Day?
The most basic requirement of Inauguration Day is simple: The new president takes a 35-word oath. This is the only event required by the U.S. Constitution—the swearing in of the new president. With a recitation of the Oath of Office, the president-elect becomes the president and commander-in-chief.
As of January 1, 2021, this oath had been said 72 times by 45 presidents of the United States.
What Is the Oath of Office?
The exact words of the Oath of Office are: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Franklin Pierce, in 1853, choose to say “swear” rather than “affirm.”
At Barack Obama’s first Inauguration Day, in 2009, Chief Justice John Roberts stumbled over the wording, and the two men decided to do it over again the next day in the White House.
Who Administers the Oath of Office?
The Oath of Office is usually administered by the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. (This has been the practice since 1797.)
Calvin Coolidge’s second oath was administered by the only chief justice who was a former president, William Howard Taft.
Has a Woman Ever Administered the Oath of Office?
The only woman to administer the oath was Federal District Court Judge Sarah T. Hughes. She was the closest federal judge to the site of the swearing in of Lyndon B. Johnson—Air Force One, which was parked at Love Field—after Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas.
Can a Family Member Administer the Oath of Office?
Yes, under unusual circumstances. After the death of President Warren G. Harding, the oath was administered by the light of a kerosene lantern to Calvin Coolidge by his father, John Calvin Coolidge, Sr., a notary public in Plymouth Notch, Vermont.
What Book Do Presidents Put Their Hand on for the Oath of Office?
Presidents usually take the Oath of Office with their left hand on a Bible, but that is not required by the Constitution.
Franklin Pierce and John Quincy Adams swore their oaths on law books.
Lyndon Johnson used a Catholic missal found on the airplane in Dallas. Theodore Roosevelt used no book at all. And Dwight D. Eisenhower, George H. W. Bush, and Barack Obama used more than one Bible.
What Is the Inaugural Address?
The Inaugural Address is a speech by the recently inaugurated president. In earlier days, the address was given before the newly elected president took the Oath of Office.
In 1897, William McKinley waited until after he was sworn in to deliver his speech, and all of the presidents since then have done the same.
What Are the Shortest and Longest Presidential Inaugural Addresses?
George Washington’s second inaugural address was 135 words long, by far the shortest in history. (Despite his reputation for taciturnity, “Silent Cal” Coolidge gave a speech of more than 4,000 words in 1925.)
The longest Inaugural Address was more than 8,000 words long and given by William Henry Harrison in 1841. Harrison delivered it in an hour and 45 minutes outdoors in freezing weather without a hat, coat, or gloves. Afterward, Harrison shook hands with admirers for 3 hours. He caught a cold, which became pneumonia, and then, a month after the ceremony, he died.
What Are Some Famous Lines from Inauguration Day Addresses?
• Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address called for “charity for all” and “malice towards none” when the Civil War ended.
• Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
• John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
First Inaugural Poet
The great American poet, Robert Frost, was the first poet to write a presidential inaugural poem. Titled “Dedication,” it was for John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. However, at age 87, Frost had trouble seeing the manuscript in the bright sunlight, so he simply recited an older poem that he knew by heart, “The Gift Outright.” Read these poems and more inaugural poetry.
The inaugural poem is traditionally about the past, with optimism about the future. In 2021, Amanda Gorman will read the poem; she became the first National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017. Listen for her poem this year!
What Else Happens on Inauguration Day?
After the oath and the address comes the celebrating: Typically, the newly inaugurated president reviews a parade and attends a lot of parties. Due to COVID, things will be slightly different in the year 2021: The parade will be virtual and feature performances from around the country.
When Was the First Inaugural Parade?
- In 1805, Thomas Jefferson’s second inauguration hosted the first inaugural parade.
- In 1866, Lincoln’s second inauguration was the first time that African-Americans marched in an inaugural parade.
- It was not until 1917, for Woodrow Wilson’s second term, that women were part of the inaugural parade!
- In 1977, President Jimmy Carter became the first to set out by foot for more than a mile on the route to the White House. This has became a tradition that many presidents have followed since.
When Was the First Inaugural Ball?
- The first official Inaugural Ball took place in 1809 at Long’s Hotel in Washington, after the first inauguration of James Madison. First Lady Dolley Madison was the hostess, and tickets cost $4 (about $85 in today’s prices).
- Since then, there have always been balls, with one exception: Woodrow Wilson did not like to dance, so his inauguration had no ball. Of course, in 2021, we do not expect any official balls to be thrown.
When Was the Inauguration First Broadcast?
- In 1845, James Polk’s inaugural address reached more people by telegraph.
- In 1897, McKinley’s inauguration was captured on a motion picture camera.
- In 1925, Calvin Coolidge’s inauguration was the first to be broadcast nationally over radio waves.
- In 1949, President Harry S. Truman was the first to deliver his inaugural address to a televised audience.
- In 1961, Kennedy would be the first to broadcast on color television.
- In 1985, Ronald Reagan had a television camera placed inside his limousine during the ride from the Capitol to the White House.
- In 1997, Bill Clinton’s second inauguration was the first to be streamed live over the Internet.
Last to Wear a Top Jat
If you look back in time, you’ll see that a “top hat” was worn for many early presidential inaugurations. In 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower replaced it with a homburg.
In 1961, Kennedy brought back the top hat one last time—but it has faded away ever since!
Photo: President-elect Kennedy and President Eisenhower
Who Pays for the Inauguration Day Events?
Taxpayers pay only for the swearing-in ceremony. The cost of all that follows it is borne by private donors.
Has There Been Any Unusual Weather on Inauguration Day?
Bad weather has not only disrupted several inaugurations but also been responsible for the deaths of one president and one First Lady.
- Bad weather and bad roads delayed Washington’s first inauguration until April 30, 1789.
- As stated above, in 1841, Harrison gave the longest inaugural speech in history (1 hour, 45 minutes) outdoors in freezing weather, developed pneumonia, and died one month later.
- In 1853, at the snowy inauguration of President Pierce, outgoing First Lady Abigail Fillmore also caught a cold that led to pneumonia and death a few weeks later.
- Probably the worst weather occurred during the 1909 inauguration of President Taft. Powerful winds and a 10-inch snowfall forced the ceremony indoors, and thousands of workers shoveled 58,000 tons of snow off the parade route. The Old Farmer’s Almanac had predicted “Strenuous winds and perhaps snow.”
What’s the Weather Forecast for Inauguration Day 2021?
Check the weather for Washington, D.C., or any U.S. city with our forecasts! See 7-day weather for our predictions.
How Can Citizens Celebrate Inauguration Day?
The U.S. flag can be flown on any day, but it especially should be flown on Inauguration Day. Learn more about how to display the U.S. flag.
Inauguration Day Recipes
Looking to celebrate Inauguration Day? Add one or two of these presidential treats to your menu!
- Many presidents love ice cream and Joe Biden’s favorite is Chocolate Chip. In his honor, one of our editor’s kids made this easy homemade chocolate chip ice cream with fresh mint. (In other words, if a kid can make it, you can!)
Here are more recipes inspired by our presidents and inaugurations! It’s a mixed bag but there should be something for everyone!
- How about making Cherry Bounce, one of George Washington’s favorite tipples? You can drink some of this potent concoction right away and let the rest infuse for continued celebration!
- President James A. Garfield loved peanut butter. Try making Peanut Butter Cookies or these easy No-Bake Peanut Butter Balls.
- Make President Warren G. Harding’s Limburger Cheese Spread and serve with crackers and cocktails!
- If you want to get bold, try making an Onion Sandwich, a favorite of President Calvin Coolidge.
- Or, make President Coolidge’s Lemon Custard Pie
- At the 1937 inauguration for FDR’s second term, they served sweet potato casserole topped with marshmallows (marshmallows were just becoming widely available)!
- At Jimmy Carter’s inauguration, they passed out peanuts and pretzels. If you’re so inspired, try out classic Peanut Brittle!
- Ronald Reagon enjoyed a California goat cheese and lettuce salad at his inauguration dinner. Here’s our chicken salad complete with oranges!
- At Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, they served guests grilled salmon and rosemary chicken. Try our top-rated rosemary chicken recipe.
What fun fact above did you find most interesting? We welcome your comments below.