Most people normally stay home for a presidential inauguration — or at least stay in their home state.
But this year, people are being asked to stay away from Washington, D.C., for the swearing-in of Joe Biden as U.S. president on Jan. 20, the traditional date for inaugurations since 1937. The mayor of D.C. has asked people to stay away and so has the Presidential Inauguration Committee. Fears of the coronavirus and possible violence are the driving factors behind the requests.
The swearing-in and any related festivities will be available to view online.
The evolution of inaugurations
Early presidential inaugurations were relatively simple affairs by today’s standards when crowds sometimes exceed half a million and costs soar well over $150,000,000.
The first inauguration that took place in the U.S. capital of Washington, D.C., was that of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States. Jefferson was staying at a boarding house in town. When the time came, he left his living quarters, walked to the capitol building with a few colleagues and a militia from Maryland, was sworn in, gave a speech of about 15 minutes to a crowd estimated at 1,000 people inside, and returned to the boarding house for dinner. No bands, choirs, parades, balls or feasts.
The first U.S. presidential inauguration, that of George Washington, took place in New York City, which was then the capital of the United States, on April 30, 1789. Washington was greeted by crowds of people along his route to New York and enjoyed a crowd and a 13-gun salute in the city. Following the swearing-in, Washington and Senate and House members went to church. A ball was held a week later — Washington did like to dance.
The tradition of the presidential ball caught on and within 40 years of our country’s founding, inaugurals had two balls, then three, then parades and entertainment and specially built platforms that could accommodate 1,000 people overlooking hundreds of thousands of other people.
Washington’s second inauguration took place in Philadelphia, the new U.S. capital at the time, as did the simple inauguration of our second president, John Adams, who didn’t even have any family members with him when he took his oath of office on March 4, 1797.
The big day: March-January
Beginning with George Washington’s second term and until 1937, inaugurations were held on March 4, with exceptions in cases of inclement weather and extraordinary circumstances, as when a president died or resigned.
In 1937, the tradition of a Jan. 20 inauguration began with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second term.
Our wordiest and least wordy presidents
A president’s inauguration speech is likely to end up in a variety of books — and on websites in today’s world. Presidents use them to thank people who helped get them elected, to enumerate problems they’ll be facing, to reiterate promises made and to say what an honor it was to be elected and how everything will be brighter with them in charge.
The length of inauguration speeches over the years ranges from “barely spoke” to “please stop speaking.”
George Washington’s second inaugural speech was 135 words — about a minute’s worth of talking.
Only three other presidents came in at under 1,000 words: Franklin D. Roosevelt at 559 words for his fourth inauguration, Abraham Lincoln at 700 words for his second inauguration, and Theodore Roosevelt at 984 words for his second inauguration.
On the other hand, William Henry Harrison droned on for nearly 8,500 words on a cold March day. He wore no coat and proceeded to attend three balls after his speech. Thirty-one days later, he was dead. While the latest conventional medicine tells us inauguration day weather had nothing to do with the cold-turned-to-pneumonia Harrison caught three weeks after taking office, presidents since 1841 have bundled up against the elements.
Nine times in our history, presidents were sworn in under “extraordinary” circumstances and gave no speeches at all.
1841: John Tyler was sworn in after President William Henry Harrison succumbed to pneumonia 31 days after he took office.
1850: Millard Fillmore was sworn in less than a year after Zachary Taylor became president, then died of what was most likely food poisoning after celebrating the 4th of July by consuming a pile of raw fruit and iced milk.
1865: Andrew Johnson was sworn in when President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated a month and a half into his second term.
1881: Chester A. Arthur was sworn in 79 days after President James Garfield was shot by an assassin at a train station and finally succumbed as much to bad medical practices as to his wound.
1901: Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in after President William McKinley was shot twice by an assassin at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., and succumbed to his wounds nine days later.
1923: Calvin Coolidge was sworn into office after President Warren G. Harding died, two and a half years into office, of a likely heart attack.
1945: Harry S. Truman was sworn in after President Franklin D. Roosevelt died of an intracerebral hemorrhage less than three months into his fourth term.
1963: Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in after President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin during a parade in Dallas, Texas.
1974: Gerald Ford was sworn in after President Richard Nixon resigned over the Watergate scandal that involved spying on the opposing party, among other things.
Joe Biden will become the 46th president of the United States on Jan. 20, 2021. If he follows the pattern of modern presidents, his inauguration speech will probably run 1,500-2,000 words, give or take a few hundred. If he doesn’t dance, he’ll probably at least feel like dancing.
A guide to watching inauguration activities can be found at https://washington.org/DC-guide-to/inauguration-day-frequently-asked-questions-washington-dc