You Gotta Know These Presidential Inaugurations
- George Washington’s first inauguration (1789) was the first to be held under the nation’s new Constitution. Washington was inaugurated on April 30, 1789, though the president’s term officially began on March 4 (and Vice President John Adams was inaugurated on April 21). Washington was sworn in at Federal Hall in New York City, which at the time was serving as the nation’s capital. The oath of office was administered by Robert Livingston, the chancellor of New York and co-author of the Declaration of Independence. In his inaugural address, Washington claimed “no event could have filled me with greater anxieties” than assuming the presidency, and described how he was “summoned by my country” from “a retreat which I had chosen with the fondest predilection.”
- The inauguration of John Adams (1797) took place on March 4 at Congress Hall in the then-current national capital, Philadelphia, as work on the new national capital at Washington, D.C. was not yet complete. (Adams became the first president to live in the White House in 1800). Adams was the first president to be sworn in by the chief justice. The transfer of power from Washington to Adams was the first peaceful transition from a living head of state to a succeeding head of state anywhere in the world in over 70 years. In his address, Adams noted that he first read the new Constitution while in a foreign country, and praised it as the “result of good heads prompted by good hearts.”
- William Henry Harrison (1841) was inaugurated on March 4 after defeating Martin Van Buren in the election 1840. His death on April 4, exactly one month after his inauguration, kicked off a constitutional crisis, as it was unclear whether his vice president, John Tyler, would succeed him by actually becoming the president or merely serving as the “acting president.” At his inauguration, Harrison delivered an 8,000-plus-word speech that lasted two hours. Popular notions in American folklore hold that Harrison’s long speech, delivered without wearing a coat, led him to catch pneumonia; it is far more likely, however, that he died of misdiagnosed typhoid and poor medical treatment.
- The second inauguration of Abraham Lincoln (1865) took place a little over one month before Lincoln’s assassination. Lincoln’s second inaugural address is among the most quoted pieces of American oratory. After noting that the Union and the Confederacy “[b]oth read the same Bible, and pray to the same God,” Lincoln concluded his speech by stating “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.” Many scholars believe that photos of Lincoln delivering his address show John Wilkes Booth on the Capitol balcony looking down at the president.
- The first inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933) took place in the midst of the Great Depression. Roosevelt opened his inaugural address by proclaiming his “firm belief” that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” After declaring that “[o]ur greatest primary task is to put people to work,” Roosevelt requested from Congress “broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” This was the last presidential inauguration to take place on March 4; Roosevelt was inaugurated for his second term on January 20, 1937, per the Twentieth Amendment.
- The inauguration of John F. Kennedy (1961) was the first presidential inauguration to be broadcast live in color. In his inaugural address, Kennedy noted that “few generations” are tasked with “defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger.” Kennedy stated that he “welcome[d]” the responsibility, saying that “[t]he energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it—and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.” In the most quoted moment of the speech, Kennedy then stated “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Poet Robert Frost recited his poem “The Gift Outright” during the ceremony, making Frost the first poet to participate in an inauguration; Frost also wrote a new poem to read, but was unable to do so in the bright sun of the day.
- Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration (1981) was the first in nearly 150 years to take place on the west side of the Capitol, so that Reagan faced the National Mall as he was sworn in. Reagan’s inauguration coincided with the release of the 52 Americans who were held for 444 days during the Iran hostage crisis. In his address, Reagan noted that while in U.S. history, the “orderly transfer of authority” in an inauguration was “a commonplace occurrence,” that “[i]n the eyes of many in the world, this every-4-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.” Reagan’s address ended by describing the diary of Martin Treptow, an American soldier who was killed during World War I. The inauguration set a record for television viewership (approximately 42 million) that stands to this day.
- The first inauguration of Barack Obama (2009) set a record for in-person attendance at any presidential inauguration. The swearing-in of Obama did not go smoothly: Chief Justice John Roberts made a mistake in the words of the oath of office, and Obama accidentally spoke over him at one point. Roberts re-administered the oath of office to Obama the next day. Obama’s address was widely viewed as a sharp rebuke of George W. Bush; in his speech, Obama noted “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” The ceremony featured a performance of the quartet “Air and Simple Gifts,” by film composer John Williams, which was actually mimed to an earlier taped recording, as there were concerns about the instruments remaining in tune on the cold January day.
- The inauguration of Donald Trump (2017) aroused a great deal of controversy due to the Trump administration’s claims about attendance numbers. Press secretary Sean Spicer cited false Washington Metro ridership numbers to attempt to show that more people attended Trump’s inauguration than Obama’s; Kellyanne Conway later described these numbers as “alternative facts.” During his address, Trump described poverty, crime, gangs, and drugs as “American carnage” and invoked the World War II-era isolationist group by stating “from this day forward, it’s going to be only America first.” The Women’s March on Washington, which took place the day after the inauguration, involved over 400,000 people and protested Trump’s misogynist and offensive behavior.
- Joseph R. Biden (2021) became the oldest person to ever be president when he was sworn in at 78 years old. His vice president, Kamala Harris, also made history as the first woman and first person of color to hold the vice presidency. Biden’s inauguration had extremely limited in-person attendance due to the COVID-19 pandemic; a “field of flags” was set up on the National Mall in lieu of spectators. In his inaugural address, given two weeks to the day after an insurrectionist mob stormed the Capitol trying to overturn the election result, Biden proclaimed “at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed,” before calling on Americans to “end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal.” During the ceremony, 22-year-old Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman read her poem “The Hill We Climb.”
This article was contributed by NAQT member Jason Thompson.