EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 18, 2009

Historical highlights of inaugurals past

Scripps Howard News Service

In 1801, President-elect Thomas Jefferson walked from Conrad & McMunn's boarding house to the still-unfinished Capitol to take the oath at noon, then strolled back in time for lunch with fellow boarders.

It was the first and last time a president walked to and from his inauguration, although Jimmy Carter did walk from the Capitol to the White House in 1977.

There were no inaugural balls for widower Jefferson — that would wait for his successor, James Madison, and his socialite wife, Dolley. At their cue, the Marine Band, "the president's own," struck up "Jefferson's March" as the outgoing president came in.

"The crowd was excessive, the heat oppressive and the entertainment bad," sniffed John Quincy Adams, a future president himself and son of second President John Adams, the man so bitter at losing he wouldn't attend Jefferson's inaugural.

Far more elaborate was George Washington's first inaugural in 1789. Washington made the 250-mile trek by horse to the interim capital of New York and was feted every step of the way by citizens determined to celebrate the war hero and first president. Had he desired, he could have been king.

Congress ferried him by a barge festooned with royal-red bunting the final miles into Manhattan, where New York chancellor Robert Livingston administered the Constitution's 35-word oath, to which Washington added "so help me God" as fireworks burst over Wall Street.

Never mind that Martha stayed home at Mount Vernon or that the father of our country had to borrow 500 pounds sterling from a Virginia neighbor to make the trip.

By Washington's second inaugural in 1793, remembered for his 135-word address — the shortest so far — the inauguration and capital had moved to Philadelphia, where John Adams also was sworn in as the second president in 1797.

The British burned the Capitol in the War of 1812, so James Monroe took the oath in 1817 on the Capitol's East Front. That's where inaugurations stayed with rare exceptions until Ronald Reagan turned to the telegenic West Front facing the Mall in 1981.

Andrew Jackson's 1829 inaugural is recalled for the White House reception for 20,000 "common folk" that turned into a brawl. The windows were opened and the liquor was moved outside in hopes the muddy mob would follow.

Martin Van Buren was the first president to have more than one inaugural ball, to have floats in the inaugural parade and to ride with his predecessor in 1837.

William Henry Harrison is remembered for giving a 90-minute inaugural address — the longest so far. With his age a campaign issue, Harrison, 68, chose to demonstrate his vigor by refusing to wear topcoat, hat or gloves despite a chilly rain. He contracted pneumonia and died a month later.

His successor, John Tyler, was dubbed "His Accidency" because he was the first vice president to ascend on the death of a president. Seven others have since taken office after a president died, and an eighth, Gerald Ford, became president in 1974 on Richard Nixon's resignation.

"His Fraudulency" Rutherford B. Hayes took the oath in secret two days early, partly because of threats against his life after the disputed 1876 election in which Samuel Tilden won the popular vote only to lose after a bipartisan commission chose Hayes by one vote, presumably for promising to withdraw Union troops from the South.

The specter of civil war led Abraham Lincoln to come secretly to his first inauguration in 1861, when sharpshooters lined the parade route between the Capitol and the White House lest his pledge to "protect, preserve and defend" the Union be cut short.

By his 1865 inaugural, when Lincoln vowed to bind up the nation's wounds "with malice toward none, with charity for all," matters loosened up even though danger lurked, and House Clerk Benjamin Brown French ordered a policeman to eject troublemaker John Wilkes Booth from the Capitol grounds that March 5, 1865, Inauguration Day.

The festivities continued, however, and Lincoln and his fashion-conscious wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, clad in a $2,000 white silk-and-lace gown, gave a White House inaugural reception.

There was also a fund-raising ball for 4,000 to finance "relief of the sick and wounded of the Federal Army." Ball-goers determined to get their $10 worth set off such a commotion at dinner that Lincoln retreated to the White House and attended to nothing but urgent business for days. The next month Lincoln was dead, shot by Booth.

Weather is always an inaugural question mark, whether the swearing-in was held in March, as the Constitution first provided, or on Jan. 20, the day the 20th Amendment changed it to in 1937. Franklin Roosevelt insisted presidents didn't need four months' lame-duckery before a new administration took over.

Ulysses Grant's second inaugural in 1873 was so cold — 16 degrees — that musicians' instruments froze in the inaugural parade and turkeys stuck to their platters at his tented inaugural ball.

Army flamethrowers melted seven inches of snow for the 1961 inauguration of John Kennedy, while Reagan's second inaugural in 1984 was the coldest in history at 2 below zero with a minus-20 wind chill. That was enough to send the swearing-in inside the Capitol Rotunda and leave bands to march indoors at the Capital Center arena.

William Howard Taft's 1909 inaugural took place in a blizzard. Undeterred, Mary Taft, who was determined her husband would be president, rode beside him in the inaugural parade, the first to do so.

"I always said it would be a cold day before I got to be president," chuckled Taft, who agreed to a second parade after the snowbound 7th New York Regiment arrived and its 7,000 members wouldn't go home until they marched.

Four years later, Taft gladly handed over the White House and the presidency to Woodrow Wilson, a handoff commemorated in what may be the first White House photo op for stills and film.

As for Taft, he finally got the job he wanted — chief justice of the United States — and in 1925 became the first and only president to swear in a president, "Silent Cal" Coolidge, in the first inauguration carried live nationwide on radio.