Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Apple #365: Presidential Inaugurations

If you've had the TV on today to watch all the inauguration festivities like I have, you may be tired of inauguration trivia by this point. But it's high time for a new entry, and since this is what's in my mind, this is the topic for the day.

Painting of George Washington's inauguration in 1789. The chancellor of New York is administering the oath, and the Secretary of the Senate is holding the Bible. VP John Adams is standing nearby.
(Painting by Allyn Cox, sourced from The Architecture of the Capitol)

  • Shortest inaugural address: The first, which was at George Washington's second inauguration, 1793, at 135 words. He said essentially, I take the oath to uphold this office, and if I screw up, you can all take me to task for it.
  • Longest inaugural address: William Henry Harrison, 1841, at 8,445 words (2 hours). He started his address, took the oath, and resumed speaking. He caught pneumonia and died a month later.
  • First inauguration parade which included African Americans: Abraham Lincoln, 1865.

Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration, March 4, 1865. There had been so much rain earlier, people were warned to stay away if they could not swim.

Somewhere in that crowd was John Wilkes Booth, who may have tried to assassinate Lincoln on that day had he not been thwarted by a New Hampshire politician named Benjamin French.
(Photo from the Library of Congress)

  • First parade to include women: Woodrow Wilson's second, 1917.
  • Only President not to place his hand on a Bible while taking the oath: Teddy Roosevelt, 1901. (Richard Nixon, by contrast, used two Bibles and put one hand on each.)
  • First President sworn in by his father: Calvin Coolidge, 1923. He took the oath of office in Vermont, where his father was a Justice of the Peace, following Warren G. Harding's death while in office. Two years later, Coolidge was sworn in by William Taft, who was by then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the only time an ex-President administered the oath of office.
  • First inauguration to be televised: Harry Truman, 1949.
  • First ceremony to include a poet: John F. Kennedy, 1961. Robert Frost was the poet in question. Blinded by sunlight, he did not read the poem he had prepared but recited another from memory. Bill Clinton's two inaugurations and now Barack Obama's are the only others to have included poets.
  • First President sworn in by a woman: Lyndon Johnson, 1963. He was sworn in not by a member of the US Supreme Court but by a US District Judge, Sarah T. Hughes. This occurred under emergency circumstances in an airplane over Dallas, after JFK had been shot.

Lyndon Johnson, taking the oath of office on board the plane that became Air Force One, as Jacqueline Kennedy, Johnson's wife, and others observe.
(Public domain photo by Cecil Stoughton, sourced from Wikimedia)

  • First inaugural ceremonies held on Superbowl Sunday: Ronald Reagan's second term, 1985. The marble-topped table from Lincoln's second inauguration, which I think is the same table in the photo above, was used at this inauguration to hold the Bible.
  • First swearing-in that used a Bible which was kept closed: Barack Obama's, 2009. The Bible used was the same one used at Lincoln's first inauguration (1861). Because of the book's fragility, the Library of Congress asked not that it be opened to any passage, but kept closed.

Barack Obama being sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts while Michelle Obama holds the Bible. Roberts flubbed his lines not once, but twice. Already some people are saying this means Obama is not really President. They are incorrect. According to the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, Barack Obama became the 44th President at noon today, whether he said any oath or not.
(Photo sourced from AFP)

  • The first inaugural ceremonies were held in April. In 1937, the date was moved to March so that people would not have to suffer the heat. After FDR and Hoover had to negotiate a very fractious and difficult transition between Presidencies, the date was moved by Constitutional amendment to January 20 to make the switch happen faster.
  • One last tidbit: Before Richard Nixon's second inauguration parade (1973), parade organizers sprayed a chemical called Roost-No-More into the trees. This was supposed to make the feet of pigeons itchy so they would fly away and not spoil the parade. However, the birds ate the chemical, which killed them. Pennsylvania Avenue was thus littered with dead and dying pigeons. They were removed as quickly as possible before the parade commenced.
Oops, I almost forgot to state the obvious.
  • First African-American to be inaugurated President: Barack Obama, 2009.

P.S. "Out of an abundance of caution," Obama took the oath of office again on the 21st, and this time he and Roberts both took it more slowly and didn't make any mistakes.

Library of Congress, Presidential Inaugurations, Some Precedents and Notable Events
Infoplease, Inaugural Trivia
Irish Times, Ten inauguration facts
Sky News, A History of Inauguration Mishaps, January 19, 2009
USA Today, Obama to be sworn in on "Lincoln Bible," January 19, 2009


  1. Great info! Thanks for doing all the research. www.satisfiedsole.com

  2. Nixon used 2 Bibles? How did he raise his right hand to swear? And the irony, of course, that double the Bible didn't save him from being a Level 5 dickhead.

  3. Is that an official designation?


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