14 Facts about Inauguration Day

Inauguration Day

A drunk vice president, Obama’s Mulligan, Lincoln’s assassin and more bizarre moments from Inauguration Day.

January 20th is Inauguration Day, a day meant to signify the peaceful transition of federal executive power within the United States government. We here at Sporcle decided to bring you some fun facts and stories about the ceremony and its history. Well, most of them are fun…

Inauguration Day used to be held in March and April

George Washington’s inauguration was held on April 30th, 1780. Every other inauguration between 1793 and 1933 was held on March 4th or 5th. It wasn’t held on January 20th until the Twentieth Amendment was ratified, which defined the beginning and ending terms for the president, vice president, and members of Congress.

Presidents swear upon the Bible for the Oath of Office… usually

Following Washington’s example, most incoming presidents take the oath of office by swearing on a Bible. Usually, that Bible is one of either personal or historical importance (i.e. Lincoln’s Bible). Sometimes presidents open to the Bible to a verse that is especially meaningful to them. Still, presidents don’t always follow this custom. John Quincy Adams swore on a law book and Lyndon Johnson swore on a Catholic missal, or liturgical book. Theodore Roosevelt took the oath without swearing upon anything at all.

George Washington is succinct and William Henry Harrison… isn’t

George Washington’s inaugural address was the shortest, at a mere 135 words long. William Henry Harrison’s speech is the longest on record, at about 8,500 words. It took about two and a half hours to read.

Lincoln’s Vice President, Andrew Johnson, was drunk at inauguration day

Vice presidents are required to take the oath of office and deliver an inaugural speech, just like presidents. Poor Vice President-elect Andrew Johnson had arrived in Washington while in recovery from Typhoid fever. The night before the inauguration, he had attended a party held by Secretary of the Senate John W. Forney and had used whiskey to power through his sickness. The next morning, hungover and miserable, he stormed into sitting Vice President Hannibal Hamblin’s office and demanded a glass of whiskey. He drank the glassful and proceeded to slam down two more. He then dragged himself to the public inauguration ceremony and when it came time to give his address, he slurred his way through a speech about his humble origins and victories against the awful aristocracy. Abraham Lincoln was reportedly mortified by Johnson’s behavior and publicly apologized on his behalf afterward.

A cold and rainy Inauguration Day probably didn’t kill William Henry Harrison

Harrison, the shortest-serving president in US history, died exactly a month after his inauguration. For years it was believed that cold and rainy weather contributed to Harrison’s death, which was reported as being caused by pneumonia that developed from a cold. Medical analysis and tests from 2014 determined that Harrison’s symptoms and the White House’s proximity to a sewage dumping ground point towards Typhoid fever instead, with pneumonia as a possible secondary diagnosis.

The Oath of Office was taken on foreign soil only once

Franklin Pierce’s vice president, William R. King, had to take his oath in Cuba, where he was recuperating from tuberculosis. Warm climates were thought to alleviate the symptoms of tuberculosis, so it was not strange for someone with the ailment to temporarily reside in a hotter place. However, King was so unwell that he was unable to return to the US for his inauguration. A Special Act of Congress had to be passed to ensure that King’s oath was legitimate even though it was taken in a foreign country. Unfortunately, King died nearly a month after the inauguration.

Barack Obama’s Oath had to be redone the next day

Chief Justice John Roberts, who administered the oath, accidentally switched the order of some of the words in the oath. Here is the official oath, which is spelled out in the US Constitution:

“I do solemnly swear 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.”

Instead of that, Chief Justice Roberts asked President Obama to repeat “…that I will execute the office to President of the United States faithfully…” To ensure that the oath was entirely legitimate, it was redone the next day in private. Nevertheless, conspiracy theorists around the world have used this stumble to conclude that Obama was never legally the president.

Sober Vice President Charles G. Dawes started a feud with Calvin Coolidge at inauguration

Unlike Johnson, who could blame his tirade on drunkenness and Typhoid, Vice President Charles G. Dawes was sober and full of fury when he gave his notorious inauguration speech in 1925. Dawes used his speech to lambaste the rules of the Senate and practice of filibustering, in particular. Coolidge was already not particularly happy with his running mate, and this just heightened the tension between the two. Some historians argue that Coolidge was more upset about being upstaged by Dawes’s speech received rather than the content of it.

The Oath of Office has been administered by a woman only once

Tradition and custom dictates that the Oath of Office is usually administered by the Chief Justice of the United States. However, this isn’t always the case. The exceptions to this are usually when the president dies unexpectedly and the Vice President must be sworn in immediately. After President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Lyndon B. Johnson called his close friend federal Judge Sarah Hughes to administer the oath. This has been the only time a woman has administered the Oath of Office.

The outgoing president usually attends the inauguration but not always

Both John Adams and John Quincy Adams did not attend the inauguration of the next incoming president due to being upset about the election outcome. Andrew Johnson angrily held a cabinet meeting while incoming president Ulysses S. Grant was being sworn in. Richard Nixon did not attend Gerald Ford’s inauguration, already having left Washington before his resignation had officially begun. Donald Trump has said he will not attend the inauguration of Joe Biden.

Reagan’s inaugurations were both really cold and relatively warm

President Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration was the warmest January inauguration on record, when it was 55 degrees Fahrenheit. His second inauguration holds the record for being the coldest at a mere 7 degrees.

JFK’s inauguration was an unusually fiery occasion

The streets of Washington D.C. were so snowy that snowplows weren’t enough to clear them out. Flamethrowers were used to melt some of the ice and snow on the nearby streets. If that already wasn’t enough fire, there was an electrical short underneath the podium that resulted in a small fire while Cardinal Richard Cushing was giving the invocation during the ceremony itself. Security had to hurriedly snuff out the fire before it spread and injured somebody.

Lincoln’s assassin attended his second inauguration

John Wilkes Booth, the man that went on to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln, actually attended Lincoln’s second inauguration. Booth was secretly engaged to a senator’s daughter, Lucy Lambert Hale, who’s father was staunch abolitionist John Parker Hale. Booth used a ticket issued to Hale to attend the inauguration. While it seems on the surface that Booth may have used Hale to become closer to President Lincoln, evidence shows that he told a number of his friends about his sincere love for the woman. Booth did, however, later express to friends that the inauguration had presented a perfect chance to carry out his assassination plan.

The Oath of Office can either be sworn or affirmed

The president has the option of swearing or affirming the oath, in case their personal beliefs disallow swearing. If it is taken as an affirmation, then the wording then changes from “I do solemnly swear” to “I do solemnly affirm.” Herbert Hoover is noted as taking an affirmation due to his Quaker faith. Franklin Pierce supposedly chose to affirm rather than swear due to his wavering faith in Christianity, which was prompted by his young son’s gruesome death in a train accident just months prior.

Most inaugurations were anything but a boring affair. We’ll have to wait and see how Inauguration Day 2021 turns out.