5 Fascinating Facts About Past Presidential Inaugurations

On April 16, 1789, George Washington left Mt. Vernon to attend his inauguration as the first President of the United States. While inaugurations are now huge events that are televised and live-streamed across the world, they were a lot different in Washington's day.  Here are five fascinating facts about past presidential inaugurations.


Washington Actually Didn't Want to Be President, and He Was Nervous About Taking the Reins. # George Washington took office out of a sense of duty, rather than a desire to lead. Photo credit: Gilbert Stuart [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Washington really just wanted to retire to his home, run the farm, be with his wife, and lead a quiet life after the bloody battles that characterized the American Revolution. However, there was so much discord between various parties trying to set up the government that Washington feared the new country would tear itself apart, and he reluctantly went back into government work out of a sense of duty. He was so popular that he was elected the first president, but he admitted publicly that he had reservations. 

Only Two Former Presidents—Who Were Related—Didn't Attend the Inauguration of Their Successors. # Look closely at the audience at an inauguration, and you'll see the living former presidents and first ladies. Photo credit: Fabrice Florin/Flickr. It's a tradition that all living former presidents and first ladies attend the inaugurations that occur after the other presidents left office. This is why Hillary Clinton showed up at Donald Trump's inauguration; she was a former first lady, so she attended in that capacity. However, John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams, both skipped out on their successors' inaugurations. In the elder Adams' case, he left Washington several hours before the ceremony in 1801, not wanting to see his former friend and then rival's swearing-in. His son skipped Andrew Jackson's ceremony in 1829 because he felt humiliated by his loss to Jackson.


Presidents Don't Have to Swear on a Bible, and Four Didn't. There's a popular image of the president being sworn in using a bible, but that's more a tradition and not a requirement. In fact, four presidents skipped using the bible for a swearing-in. One, Franklin Pierce, affirmed his oaths, instead of swearing them, and avoided using a bible; the other three were John Quincy Adams, who used a book of U.S. laws because he thought the bible would have violated the separation of church and state; Theodore Roosevelt, who used nothing; and Lyndon B. Johnson, who was so hurriedly sworn in after John F. Kennedy's assassination that he mistook a Catholic missal, or book of prayers, for a bible. 

There May Actually Be Another President in the Lineup. Now, this is a strange one. When Zachary Taylor was elected, it turned out his 1849 inauguration would have to be on a Sunday. He refused to go because it was the Sabbath and he was not going to do any oath-taking on a Sunday. However, the country's election laws stated that the previous president would no longer be president as of inauguration day. The solution was to have Senate President Pro Tempore David Rice Atchison take the oath on Sunday and have Taylor sworn in on Monday. The confusion arises from that one day. Does that mean that Senate President Pro Tempore David Rice Atchison is actually supposed to be listed among presidents? Technically yes, but no one counts him because his oath was a stopgap measure. It's understood that he was not actually taking power.

Sometimes Inaugurations Occurred Outside Washington. Washington, Coolidge, and Johnson stand out among presidents because their inaugurations did not take place in Washington, D.C. Washington's two inaugurations took place in New York and Philadelphia, though at the time, Philadelphia was technically the capital. Calvin Coolidge was in Vermont when Warren Harding died, so Coolidge was sworn in overnight at the farm by his father, who was a notary public. And Johnson was sworn in on a plane, so far the only president to have to do that, after Kennedy died.

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