All You Need to Know About Inaugurations

President William J. Clinton’s first inauguration, 01/20/1993 (ARC 2133026)

George Washington

As the first President, Washington set many inaugural precedents, but his inaugurations were also very different in ways that would not be repeated. The oath of office is usually administered the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court during the ceremony. The first President had not yet appointed any Supreme Court Justices, and so he was sworn in by Robert R. Livingston, the Chancellor of New York.  For his second inauguration, Washington was sworn in by Supreme Court Justice William Cushing. Washington is the only President whose inauguration was held in two different cities: New York and Philadelphia. Washington also set the precedent of swearing on a Bible, a tradition followed by succeeding Presidents.


The Constitution does not dictate where the inauguration should happen, and so the actual location has varied from city to building to room. Washington’s first  inauguration took place in New York on a second-floor balcony of Federal Hall, with a crowd assembled in the streets below. Washington’s second inauguration and John Adams’s only inauguration were held in Philadelphia. Even when the ceremony was held in the new capital city, the location still varied. Jefferson, the first President to be inaugurated in Washington, DC, took the oath twice in the Senate Chamber of the Capitol. James Monroe caused a political firestorm in 1817 when he offered to take the oath in the “Brick Capitol.” The actual Capitol, which had burned just five years before, was under construction. But no one could agree on which house of Congress would host the ceremony, and eventually Monroe took the oath on a platform outside the “Brick Capitol,” making it the first outdoor inauguration.

President Reagan being sworn in on Inauguration Day, U.S. Capitol, 01/20/1981 (ARC 198506)

Starting with Andrew Jackson in 1829, inauguration ceremonies were held on the Capitol’s East Portico, but even that was not permanent. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fourth and final inauguration was a small, wartime ceremony held on the South Portico of the White House. In 1981, Ronald Reagan became the first President to to take the oath of office on the West Portico of the Capitol, facing out onto the Mall. (Like this year’s inauguration, the January 20 of Reagan’s second inauguration fell on a Sunday. Reagan took the oath that day in a private ceremony in the White House. The public ceremony, scheduled for Monday, was held inside the Capitol due to extremely cold weather.)

In Case of Emergency

Presidents do not need to be inaugurated. In case of the death of a President, the oath of office can be administered by a nearby official. Vice Presidents John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and Chester A. Arthur were all sworn in after the death of a President (and none of them were reelected). Theodore Roosevelt took the oath in Buffalo, NY, after the assassination of William McKinley. In 1923, Calvin Coolidge was at home in Vermont when Warren Harding died and had to be sworn in by his father, a notary public and justice of the peace. Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in on board Air Force One after President Kennedy’s death. And Gerald Ford took the oath of office in the East Room of the White House after President Nixon resigned.

Harry S. Truman taking the oath of office as President of the United States in the Cabinet Room of the White House, following the death of President Franklin Roosevelt, 04/12/1945 (ARC 199062)


Washington’s second inaugural address remains the shortest on record at 133 words. The longest speech was a two-hour address given by President William Henry Harrison. He read the 8,495-word address on an extremely cold day in March without wearing hat, gloves, or overcoat. He died of pneumonia a month later.

But the words of some inaugural addresses are seared into our collective consciousness. The assurance that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” comes from FDR’s first inauguration in 1933, as the country struggled in the midst of the Great Depression. And Kennedy addressed the assembled citizens with his immortal words, “And so my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

Page one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, 03/04/1933 (ARC 197333)


Originally, the parade was meant to escort the President to the White House from the Capitol, but it soon developed into something more. Jefferson began the tradition of the open house. Americans could come directly into the White House and congratulate the President. Over time, the crowds became so enormous that President Jackson fled the crush through an open window. By the time Grover Cleveland took office, the number of inaugural visitors was too large to manage, and so Cleveland had parade stands set up outside, where he could review the troops. Over time, this the review came to include floats and other civilian contributions. For Clinton’s second inauguration, the parade featured floats, choirs, and marching bands from all 50 states.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower is lassoed by cowboy star Montie Montana (with permission from the Secret Service) while reviewing the inaugural parade as Vice President Richard M. Nixon and other dignitaries look on, 01/20/1953.


The inaugural ball tradition began with the first inauguration, held in New York. It was unofficial, and President Washington attended alone—his wife had not yet arrived in New York. Dolley Madison planned the first official ball, held for her husband President James Madison in Long’s Hotel in Washington, DC. Guests paid four dollars to attend. Inaugural balls moved locations almost as much as the swearing-in ceremony. They were held in the Patent Office and the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building, where large crowds could have room to dance.

President Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter dancing at an Inaugural Ball, 01/20/1977 (ARC 173398)

During Woodrow Wilson’s Presidency, the inaugural balls were canceled to preserve the solemnity of the day. Franklin D. Roosevelt brought back the tradition with an official inauguration ball in 1933, but the war would make the following balls more subdued. In 1949, President Truman began the tradition of multiple balls so that more people could participate and see the President and First Lady.

For more photographs of Presidential inaugurations, visit OurPresidents. You can also see historic footage from each inauguration from Truman to George W. Bush at the National Archives on January 16, 17, and 18. Or come watch the 2012 Inauguration from our theater in the National Archives starting at 11:30 a.m.

This post was adapted from the Prologue magazine article “Peaceful Transition of Power: American Presidential Inaugurations” by Maureen MacDonald.

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