At noon on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, Joe Biden will be inaugurated as the forty-sixth President of the United States. This will be the latest in an uninterrupted series of similar ceremonies dating back to the inauguration of George Washington on April 30, 1789.

Washington’s inauguration as the nation’s first President was held on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City, which was then the nation’s capital city, and followed his unanimous election the previous autumn. In fact, Washington was the only president in American history to be the unanimous choice of the electors, both in 1788 and during his reelection in 1792. By the time he left office in 1796, a new (and unanticipated) era of party politics had begun, and future elections would be contests of often-heated partisan divides.

George Washington’s inauguration as the nation’s first President. (History.com)

These divides would become obvious to those who attended the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson as the third President, on March 4, 1801 (the date of the ceremony had by then been fixed at March 4, where it would remain until it was shifted to the current date of Jan. 20 for Franklin Roosevelt’s second inauguration). By the time of Jefferson’s election, two parties, the Federalists and his own Democratic-Republicans, had formed and were locked in bitter rivalry, and the contest between Jefferson and incumbent President John Adams had been marked by sharp insults from each side. So harsh were the feelings, at least on Adams’ part, that Adams spent the entire previous night appointing fellow Federalists to government posts, and then pointedly refused to attend Jefferson’s inauguration (which was the first one held in the new capital city, Washington DC).

Adams aside, a tradition developed that outgoing Presidents would attend their successor’s inaugurations, and nearly every President has followed this example. However, there have been a very few exceptions, usually involving partisan or personal animosity. For instance, after a fierce 1828 campaign, filled with invective, in which challenger Andrew Jackson defeated the incumbent President John Quincy Adams, Adams followed in his father’s footsteps and was not present at the large, raucous ceremony (the first held on a reviewing stand outside the Capitol building) that ushered Jackson into office.

The only other such snub occurred at the first inauguration of President Ulysses S. Grant in March, 1869. The incumbent at that time, Andrew Johnson, was a Tennessee Democrat who, as Abraham Lincoln’s Vice President, had taken office after Lincoln’s assassination. Ever since the 1850s there had been fierce  clashes between Democrats, who tended to be sympathetic to slavery and the South, and Lincoln’s Republicans who favored rights for freed slaves and strong Reconstruction in the South (Lincoln had chosen Johnson as his Vice President in a gesture of political unity).

Inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant. (Wikipedia)

As he completed what would have been Lincoln’s second term, Johnson became ever more pro-Southern, and true bitterness arose between himself and Republicans such as ex-general Grant. Frustrated in his failure to even win the Democratic nomination for reelection, and angered by Grant’s unwillingness to be seen in the same carriage with him, Johnson refused to attend Grant’s ceremony and left Washington soon after.  

Beyond the expected pageantry, some inaugurations have occasioned landmark speeches, such as those of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 and John F. Kennedy in 1961. As we await Biden’s ceremony, we are left to wonder: will the defeated Pres. Trump attend or join the handful who refused to? Will Biden mark the occasion with a landmark speech? How will the pandemic shape what is usually a crowded celebration? Our nation awaits!

President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech. (Inc.magazine)

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Brian Alnutt
Brian Alnutt, Ph.D. has been teaching history at NCC since 2009, recently promoted to Professor. He was born in Philadelphia, raised in southern New Jersey, graduated from Muhlenberg College and, after working in corporate client relations, earned his doctoral degree from Lehigh University with a particular interest in 19th-century American history and ethnic/racial relations. He's lived in the Lehigh Valley since 1987; and currently resides with his wife in rural Lehigh County; two of their four grown children proudly attended NCC.

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