Thousands of ordinary Americans made the long journey from the frontier to Washington to see their hero, Andrew Jackson, sworn into office. Some had traveled as much as 500 miles to get to the nation’s Capital for the March 4, 1829 occasion. They were coarse, uneducated and unsophisticated. For many, Washington was the first city they had ever seen. Most had little money to rent hotel rooms, many choosing to sleep on the floor at nearby inns. Many others chose to set up camp as they might do on the frontier. They had few changes of clothing with them, and most arrived from the frontier muddied and unwashed. Above all, they came to the ceremony because they felt that their vote for Jackson gave them the right to witness his Inauguration and to perhaps shake his hand and wish him well. There were between 20,000 and 30,000 attendees at the Inauguration. Despite their ragged look, most dressed up in their best attire for the events, many sporting beaver-skin hats.
This was the first time in U.S. history that a commoner, a man of very humble origins, was elected President, unseating the Harvard Educated aristocrat, John Quincy Adams. The visiting crowd was uproariously excited about Andrew Jackson, an ordinary man who shared a similar upbringing to themselves, and who had been elected President as the “tribune of the people.”
Inaugural events prior to Andrew Jackson’s Inauguration had been relatively subdued occasions. After the Inaugural Address, a select group of invitees would retreat to the Executive Mansion (know today as The White House) for coffee and tea to meet the president and congratulate him. Attendees of these events were primarily from patrician backgrounds as were the first six Presidents: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams. Outside of George Washington, they graduated from the likes of Harvard, William and Mary, and Princeton (known then as the College of New Jersey). Washington, for his part, attended William and Mary to become proficient in the vocation of surveying.
Andrew Jackson, just like his loyal adherents, lacked a patrician pedigree and formal education. His supporters were of a different ilk than the elite supporters of the aristocratic Presidents of the past. They were “ordinary folk,” many from the growing number of frontiersmen who up until this election were not allowed to vote. This all changed however a few years prior to the 1828 election due to the fact that many states were now allowing non-property owners the right to vote. These new voters propelled Jackson to a landslide victory over Adams, and set the stage for a different kind of Inaugural Day.
After delivering the Inaugural Address at the front of the Capitol Building, President Jackson rode through the primitive streets of Washington to the Executive Mansion. The Inaugural crowd of enthusiastic revelers, boisterously yelling “Hurrah for Jackson!,” made their journey to the Executive Mansion on foot, some arriving at the Executive Mansion even before the President arrived.
A small post-Inaugural reception had been planned at the Executive Mansion for President Jackson’s friends, campaign workers and loyal supporters. As a huge crowd of ardent Jackson partisans arrived on foot at the Executive Mansion, it was evident that there might be a problem. Upon someone announcing that ice cream and orange rum punch was being served in the Executive Mansion, within moments excited Jackson supporters overran the already crowded Mansion. As the crown stormed through the first floor of the building, rum spilled everywhere and thousands of dollars of china accidentally went crashing to the floor. Those vying to shake the president’s hand, knocked over furniture and anything else in their way to get to the president. Others jumped up onto tables, chairs and sofas in their muddy frontier boots to get a better look at Jackson.
Adding to the dysfunctional situation, the crowd became increasingly inebriated on the orange rum punch, causing the event to devolve quickly into an unruly mob of obnoxious drunkards. As the large crowd pressed toward the president, the president began fearing that he might be suffocated from the disorderly and unruly mob, and subsequently fled the Mansion through a first floor window, seeking refuge in a nearby hotel.
There was great concern for the floor of the Executive Mansion. Staff members, upon hearing the floor creaking loudly from the large volume of rowdy supporters moving about, were concerned that the floor would actually collapse. Legend has it that just before dusk, Mansion employees devised a clever method to relocate the crowd, the essence of which was to relocate the ice cream and orange rum punch from the interior of the Executive Mansion to the front lawn. This plan actually worked. Seeking more punch, the crowd exited the Executive Mansion and took-up positions on the lawn. Many of the “guests” leaving the Mansion grabbed souvenirs as they egressed through windows, as the doors were impassable due to the large number of revelers standing in, around and about the doorways.
This was the first, and likely the last, out-of-control, raucous Presidential Inaugural Reception. Nothing even remotely similar to this has occurred in any of the subsequent Inaugurations. There were comparisons made by eyewitnesses that the raucous crowd resembled the barbarians who invaded Rome. U.S. Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, a critic of Jackson, remarked, “I never saw such a crowd here, and they really seem to think that the country is rescued from some dreadful danger.”
Jackson’s Inaugural event is symbolically significant in that it represents the inclusion of the ordinary man in the governance system of the United States. It was the beginning of a subtle shift in power away from the aristocratic elites of the establishment to the people of the frontier states. Finally, the ascendancy of Jackson gave true meaning to the phase “We the People.”
Perhaps Author Margaret Smith, also an attendee of the day’s events, described best what happened when she explained: “It was the People’s day, and the People’s President, and the People would rule.”