Here are ten facts about the history and tradition of Inauguration Day that you might not be familiar with.
1. The Bible
Inauguration Day is the day that the President-elect becomes officially sworn in as the President of the United States. This is often symbolized by the tradition of the President taking his oath of office with his hand on a Bible.
This tradition was first begun by George Washington during his first inauguration. While some Presidents have opened the Bible to a random page (like George Washington in 1789 and Abraham Lincoln in 1861), most others have opened the Bible to a specific page because of a meaningful verse.
There is always the option to keep the Bible closed like Harry Truman did in 1945 and John F. Kennedy in 1961. Some Presidents even had two Bibles (with either both opened to the same verse or two different verses), while only one President refrained from using a Bible at all (Theodore Roosevelt in 1901).
2. Shortest Inaugural Address
George Washington gave the shortest inauguration address in history during his second inauguration on March 4, 1793. Washington’s second inaugural address was only 135 words long!
The second shortest inaugural address was given by Franklin D. Roosevelt at his fourth inauguration and was only 558 words long.
3. Inauguration Blamed for President’s Death
Even though there was a snowstorm on William Henry Harrison’s inauguration day (March 4, 1841), Harrison refused to move his ceremony indoors.
Wanting to prove that he was still a hardy general who could brave the elements, Harrison took the oath of office as well as delivered the longest inaugural address in history (8,445 words, which took him nearly two hours to read) outside. Harrison also wore no overcoat, scarf, or hat.
Shortly after his inauguration, William Henry Harrison came down with a cold, which quickly transformed into pneumonia.
On April 4, 1841, having only served 31 days in office, President William Henry Harrison died. He was the first President to die in office and still holds the record for serving the shortest term.
4. Few Constitutional Requirements
It is a bit surprising how little the Constitution prescribes for inauguration day. In addition to the date and time, the Constitution only specifies the exact wording of the oath taken by the President-elect before he begins his duties.
The oath states: “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.” (Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution)
5. So Help Me God
Although not officially part of the official oath, George Washington is credited with adding the line “So help me God” after he finished the oath during his first inauguration.
Most Presidents have also uttered this phrase at the end of their oaths. Theodore Roosevelt, however, decided to end his oath with the phrase, “And thus I swear.”
6. The Oath Givers
Although it is not stipulated in the Constitution, it has become a tradition to have the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court be the oath giver to the President on Inauguration Day.
This, surprisingly, is one of the few traditions of inauguration day not begun by George Washington, who had the Chancellor of New York Robert Livingston give him his oath (Washington was sworn in at Federal Hall in New York).
John Adams, the second President of the United States, was the first to have a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court swear him in.
Chief Justice John Marshall, having given the oath nine times, holds the record for having given the most presidential oaths on inauguration day.
The only President to become an oath giver himself was William H. Taft, who had become a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court after he had served as President.
The only woman to have ever sworn in a President was U.S. District Judge Sarah T. Hughes, who swore in Lyndon B. Johnson on board Air Force One.
7. Traveling Together
In 1837, outgoing President Andrew Jackson and President-elect Martin Van Buren rode together to the Capitol on inauguration day in the same carriage. Most of the following Presidents and Presidents-elect have continued this tradition of traveling together to the ceremony.
In 1877, the inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes began the tradition of the President-elect first meeting the outgoing President at the White House for a short meeting and then traveling from the White House together to the Capitol for the ceremony.
8. The Lame Duck Amendment
Back in a time when the news was carried by messengers on horses, there needed to be a great length of time between Election Day and Inauguration Day so that all the votes could be tallied and reported. To allow this time, the inauguration day used to be March 4.
By the early twentieth century, this huge amount of time was no longer needed. The inventions of the telegraph, the telephone, automobiles, and airplanes had greatly cut the reporting time needed.
Rather than make the lame-duck President wait for four whole months to leave office, the date of inauguration day was changed in 1933 to January 20 by the addition of the 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Amendment also specified that the exchange of power from the lame-duck President to the new President would take place at noon.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was both the last President to be inaugurated on March 4 (1933) and the first President to be inaugurated on January 20 (1937).
Throughout presidential history, inaugurations have never been held on Sundays. There have been, however, seven times when it was scheduled to land on a Sunday.
The first time an inauguration would have landed on a Sunday was March 4, 1821, with the second inauguration of James Monroe.
Rather than hold the inauguration when most offices were closed, Monroe pushed the inauguration back to Monday, March 5. Zachary Taylor did the same when his Inauguration Day would have landed on a Sunday in 1849.
In 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes changed the pattern. He didn’t want to wait until Monday to be sworn in as President and yet neither did he want to make others work on a Sunday. Thus, Hayes was sworn in as President in a private ceremony on Saturday, March 3, with a public inauguration on the following Monday.
In 1917, Woodrow Wilson was the first to take a private oath on Sunday and then hold the public inauguration on Monday, a precedent that has continued to this day.
Dwight D. Eisenhower (1957), Ronald Reagan (1985), and Barack Obama (2013) all followed Wilson’s lead.
10. An Embarrassing Vice President (Who Later Became President)
In the past, the vice president took his oath of office in the Senate Chamber, but the ceremony now occurs on the same platform as the President’s swearing-in ceremony on the west front terrace of the Capitol.
The vice president takes his oath and gives a short speech, followed by the President. This usually goes very smoothly except in 1865.
Vice President Andrew Johnson hadn’t been feeling very well for several weeks before Inauguration Day. To get him through the important day, Johnson drank a few glasses of whiskey.
When he got up to the podium to take his oath, it was obvious to everyone that he was drunk. His speech was incoherent and rambling, and he didn’t step down from the podium until someone finally pulled on his coattails.
Interestingly, it was Andrew Johnson who became President of the United States after Lincoln’s assassination.