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Read All About It: Early Newspaper Accounts of Presidential Inaugurations

January 17, 2017 | By Adriana Cutler

For the past few decades Presidential Inaugurations have been large and grand affairs, with much pomp and circumstance and the dignity and solemnity that come with such an important changing of the guard.  However, earlier inauguration ceremonies were not always so large and grand, or even dignified.  Historic newspapers are one of the best sources of information we have on how citizens have observed presidential inaugurations in the past.  Thanks to the National Endowment for the Humanities, more than 2,000 American newspapers from the period 1690 to 1963 have been digitized. All are freely available at Chronicling America, an online resource maintained by the Library of Congress.  To date, 11.3 million pages representing 39 states and one territory and the District of Columbia are available on the site, with more being added all the time.  You can dig deeper into the history of our presidential inaugurations by reading some of the newspaper accounts here.  Below are some interesting historical facts about the ceremony.

  • Thomas Jefferson was the first president to be sworn in at the Capitol in Washington, D.C.  George Washington’s first inauguration was held in New York City, and his second inauguration, as well as John Adam’s, took place in Philadelphia.
  • The first inaugural ball was held in 1813 for President James Madison. It took place at the Davis Hotel, which used to stand at 601 Pennsylvania Avenue. 
  • The first true inaugural parade was held in 1817 for James Monroe. It included citizens following the president-elect and vice president-elect on horseback while militia awaited them at the Capitol Building.
  • After his inauguration in 1829, Andrew Jackson opened all of the doors to the White House and did not turn away anyone who wanted to celebrate the occasion.  Orange punch was served in barrels and guests reportedly broke glasses, knocked over pails, stepped on food, and stood on chairs in mud soaked boots to see the new president.  The event is considered the wildest public party ever held at the White House.
  • Since the time of John Adams, every presidential inauguration was held in March.  This changed in 1933 when the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution moved the date to January 20th.  There have also been unsuccessful efforts to move the ceremony later into April or May because of concerns about inclement weather. This idea was partly fueled by the myth that President William Henry Harrison, who died of pneumonia one month after taking the oath of office, had become ill at his own inauguration in 1841.
  • In 1913, the National Woman Suffrage Association opened their Washington, D.C. headquarters approximately a month before Woodrow Wilson was to take the oath of office.  To bring more visibility to their cause, the Association planned a demonstration on March 3rd, to coincide with inauguration week.  As a result, Wilson was the first president to include women in an inaugural parade, for his second term in 1917.
  • Warren G. Harding was the first president to ride to his inauguration (1921) in a motor vehicle.