A Promise to Faithfully Execute the Office: Presidential Inaugurations

January 20 is Inauguration Day. Visit the National Archives website for more information on Presidential elections and inaugurations. 

At noon on January 20, 2021, President-elect Joe Biden will recite the oath of office in accordance with Article II, Section I of the U.S. Constitution:

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

It will be the 59th Presidential inauguration in U.S. history. Today we’re looking back at some unique inaugurations throughout history.

U.S. Capitol at President William J. Clinton’s First Inauguration, 1/20/1993 (National Archives Identifier 2133026)

We’ve written a lot about the very first Presidential inauguration—when in 1789 George Washington took the oath of office on the second-floor balcony of New York’s Federal Hall. However, we haven’t written much about his second, which was also unparalleled. 

Washington’s second inauguration took place in Philadelphia on March 4, 1793 (the U.S. capital moved from New York City to Philadelphia in 1790). To this day, he is the only President to give an inaugural address in two different cities. It was also the shortest inaugural speech on record, coming in at a mere 133 words.

Washington’s Inauguration at Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from painting of J. L. G. Ferris. (National Archives Identifier 135798196)

The ninth President, William Henry Harrison, holds the honor of the longest Presidential inaugural address, running a whopping 8,445 words. At that time, Harrison was 68, the oldest man to be inaugurated. Donald Trump currently holds that record, being 70 at his inauguration; Joe Biden will overtake that on January 20— he will be 78 when he’s sworn in.

Harrison gave his address on March 4, 1841, on the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol. While he had the longest speech, he had the shortest Presidency, dying just one month after being sworn in. There is a popular misconception that his inauguration contributed to his death—he talked for so long while outside with no coat on a 48-degree windy day. However, he didn’t develop symptoms until three weeks later, so that contention is probably unlikely.

Portrait of William Henry Harrison. (National Archives Identifier 530961)

John F. Kennedy was the youngest person to be elected President (Teddy Roosevelt was technically the youngest person to become President after William McKinley’s assignation in 1901, although he was simply sworn in with no formal inaugural address). Kennedy was 43 and 236 days when he took the oath of office on January 20, 1961, on the East Portico of the Capitol. In that inaugural address, JFK uttered his famous call to action, “And so my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

Martin Van Buren was the first to be inaugurated who was not born a British subject—he was born in 1782, after the Revolutionary War. The Constitution stipulates a President must be a natural born citizen of the United States or U.S. citizen at the time of the adoption of the Constitution. 

Van Buren was the eighth President of the United States—a fact I will always remember, partly because of that Seinfeld episode with the “Van Buren Boys.” His inauguration took place on March 4, 1837, on the East Portico of the Capitol and was the thirteenth Presidential inauguration. 

Martin Van Buren, ca. 1861. (National Archives Identifier 528289)

Franklin D. Roosevelt had the most inaugurations—four in total, which is at least two more than most Presidents. On January 20, 1941, President Roosevelt made history by being the first President to be inaugurated for a third term.

In 1945 Roosevelt again made history by being sworn in for a fourth term. Because the country was in the middle of World War II, a simple ceremony was held on the South Portico of the White House. Unless we repeal the 22nd Amendment limiting the President to two terms, FDR will remain the only President to have four inaugurations. 

In 1981, Ronald Reagan became the first President to take the oath of office on the West Portico of the Capitol, facing the National Mall. Since Andrew Jackson’s inauguration in 1829, the ceremonies had been held on the Capitol’s East Portico, which was considered the front entrance of the Capitol Building. 

Reagan’s ceremony took place on January 20, 1981, marking the 49th inauguration. At age 69 years, 349 days on Inauguration Day, Reagan became the oldest person to assume the Presidency at that time, beating out William Henry Harrison by nearly two years.  

Ronald Reagan at inauguration ceremony at the U.S. Capitol, 1/20/1981. (National Archives Identifier 75856797)

Finally, in 2008, Barack Obama became the first Black President to be inaugurated. Obama took the oath of office on January 20, 2009, on the West Portico of the U.S. Capitol. It was the 56th Presidential inauguration.

His inauguration was also the most attended with an estimated 1.8 million people—generally considered a record for the National Mall (because controversies over estimates, in 1996 the National Park Service stopped estimating crowd sizes). 

President-elect Barack Obama looks in a mirror in a holding room prior to the Inaugural Ceremony at the U.S. Capitol, 1/20/2009. (National Archives Identifier 118817951)

Interested in more Presidential inauguration facts? Read more: 

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