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You are here: Home > Articles by Rich Rubino > The Presidential Inauguration: Some Bizarre Events

The Presidential Inauguration: Some Bizarre Events

by Rich Rubino on December 20, 2012

n Monday, Jan. 21, Barack Obama will celebrate his second-term Presidential Inauguration. It is tradition that when Jan. 20 falls on a Sunday, the official inaugural ceremony is held on the following day. However, despite this apparent quirkiness, the oath of office will be administered to the president on Sunday, Jan. 20, the day prior to the Inauguration.

When one looks back upon previous inaugurations, a handful of quotes come to mind, like Abraham Lincoln declaring “Malice toward none, charity toward all,” John F. Kennedy averring: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” and Gerald R. Ford in the wake of the Watergate fiasco stating: “Our long national nightmare is over.” Presidential inaugurations have a long a fascinating history.

The U.S. Constitution does not require the president to be sworn into office in a public setting. However, this precedent has been followed since 1789, when George Washington took the oath of office at Federal Hall in New York City (the nation’s first capital). President Washington then delivered the first presidential Inaugural Address.

The original date for the Inaugural Address was March 4, which was the last day of the outgoing Congress. Once noon struck, the incoming vice president would be sworn in at the U.S. Senate Chamber and would deliver an inaugural address. The new vice president would then swear in the newly elected senators. Following this ceremony, the president would take the oath of office in front of the U.S. Capitol. This practice ceased in 1937 with the adoption of the Twentieth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which moved the date of the Inauguration to Jan. 20. The vice president now takes the oath of office in front of the Capitol just prior to the president being sworn in. Furthermore, the vice president no longer delivers an Inauguration Address.

There were two vice presidential inaugural addresses that stand out. In 1865, Vice President Andrew Johnson slurred his address. He had become inebriated from “medicinal” whiskey that he had imbibed to cure a bout of malaria. President Abraham Lincoln later defended Johnson, stating: “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.”

The second memorable address took place in 1925, when the new Vice President, Charles G. Dawes, used his address to deliver a diatribe on the fecklessness of U.S. Senate rules. His address upstaged the Inaugural Address of President Calvin Coolidge, and deeply embarrassed the president. The day following the addresses there was nearly as much media coverage of the vice president’s address as there was of the president’s address.

In 1793, George Washington delivered what is still the shortest inaugural address in American history. It was just 135 words long. By contrast, William Henry Harrison delivered the longest address. His address was 8,445 words and took more than two and a half hours for the new President to read.

The most chaotic inauguration was in 1829. Andrew Jackson had run for president as a tribune of the common people, not of the landed aristocracy as was the custom. He was the first president elected without a patrician pedigree. Consequently, more than 20,000 common folk from throughout the nation stormed the White House after Jackson’s inaugural address to see the new president and to shake his hand. The president almost suffocated from the unruly mob that surrounded him in an attempt to shake his hand. The president was forced to flee to a nearby hotel while the revelers exuberantly partook in the Inaugural festivities.

The boldest inauguration was in 1853, when Franklin Pierce gave a 3,319-word address without using any notes. Of particular interest was the way in which Franklin Pierce’s vice president was sworn in. Due to a serious illness, William Rufus King was sworn in as vice president while convalescing in Cuba. King was allowed to take the oath of office on foreign soil because it was known that he had come down with tuberculosis and was terminally ill. Congress passed a special act to allow this unusual swearing in ceremony. Although Vice President King eventually returned to the United States, he died shortly thereafter, leaving President Pierce without a vice president for almost his entire four-year term. This was prior to the adoption in 1967 of the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, allowing a president to nominate a vice president.

Article 11, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution requires upon taking office that the president “… 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.” Pierce was the only president who chose to affirm rather than swear. He did this because he believed God had punished him when his only son, Benjamin, was killed in a train collision just two months before his inauguration. Because of this incident, he began to question his Christianity, and decided not to swear on the Holy Bible.

An interesting turn of events occurred in 1923. Vice President Calvin Coolidge was visiting his father in Plymouth Notch, Vr., when he received the solemn news that President Warren G. Harding had died. The vice president’s father, John Calvin Coolidge Sr., who just happened to be a state-certified Notary Public, swore him in as president. Later that day Coolidge traveled to Washington, D.C. and was sworn in again by Federal Judge Adolph A. Holing. U.S. Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty feared that the legitimacy of the first oath could be questioned because Coolidge’s father was not a federal official.

In 2009, Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts misstated a few words while administering the oath of office. A second oath was administered the next day to assure that Barack Obama would be viewed as the legitimate president. White House Counsel Greg Craig said this was done out of “an abundance of caution.”

Weather has sometimes been a hindrance for a Presidential Inauguration. Benjamin Harrison’s 1889 Inaugural Address was held during a downpour. Outgoing President Grover Cleveland, who Harrison had just defeated, held an umbrella over Harrison during the downpour. William Howard Taft delivered his address inside the U.S. Senate Chamber, as a blizzard hit the nation’s capital the night before. The coldest day for a Presidential Inauguration was in 1985, when the temperature in the District of Columbia dropped to just 9 degrees. This was the second inauguration for Ronald Reagan and the festivities were moved inside to the Capitol Rotunda.

The Presidential Inauguration is a unique bipartisan celebration, wherein the president takes the oath of office, and then delivers a thematic address, laying out the framework for his upcoming term. On the following day, with the pomp and circumstance over, the partisan firefights resume and political brinksmanship resurfaces. Quite predictably, the president will try to pass his legislative agenda right away. But just as predictably, the opposition party will gleefully submit their own alternative legislative agenda for the country. The cessation of hostilities between the political parties, and the bipartisan jovial atmosphere of Inauguration Day vanish quickly, and are replaced by a partisan climate that once again permeates the nation’s capital like a thick fog rolling in from the sea. Washington returns to normal.

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