8 interesting facts about past presidential inaugurations

(MEDIA GENERAL) — With all of the pomp and circumstance surrounding a custom as proper and important as a presidential inauguration, you’d think it’d be a bit of a boring affair. Often, it’s anything but.

Here are eight interesting facts about past presidential inaugurations that will impress around the water cooler.

1. Only two presidents have taken the oath four times

Barack Obama, joined by his wife Michelle, takes the oath of office from Chief Justice John Roberts to become the 44th president of the United States at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, in this Jan. 20, 2009 file photo. (AP file)
Barack Obama, joined by his wife Michelle, takes the oath of office from Chief Justice John Roberts to become the 44th president of the United States at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, in this Jan. 20, 2009 file photo. (AP file)

Only two presidents have taken the constitutional oath of office four times – Franklin Delano Roosevelt and … Barack Obama?

This is a bit of an odd one. Roosevelt took the presidential oath four times because he was elected to four terms – before Congress passed the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution that limits the president to two terms in office.

Obama took the presidential oath four times because during his first inauguration Chief Justice John Roberts botched the wording in the vow. Out of fear of critics who could challenge Obama’s authority because he did not complete the constitutionally mandated oath properly, the president and Chief Justice Roberts correctly completed the oath days later in a private ceremony in the White House. For transparency purposes, the president and Chief Justice Roberts recited the oath again in a public ceremony on Capitol Hill.

One inauguration, one week, three recitations of the oath. The fourth came during Obama’s second inauguration.

2. Was Harrison’s inaugural address a fatal mistake?

William Henry Harrison is one of the lesser-known presidents – which is fair considering No. 9 only held the office for a month.

William Henry Harrison, the ninth President of the United States (Public Domain)
William Henry Harrison, the ninth President of the United States. (Public Domain)

Harrison, 68 years old when he was sworn into office on March 4, 1841, holds the record for the longest inaugural address by a president – clocking in at approximately 100 minutes. It isn’t just that Harrison ran long, but that he did so in a freezing rain storm without an overcoat, hat or gloves.

He died a month later. Cause of death: pneumonia.

Despite the obvious tie to his questionable decision on his inauguration day, historians don’t believe the speech had anything to do with Harrison’s death. For one, he didn’t become sick until three weeks later, complaining of fatigue, and his lung ailments didn’t arise until later. In fact, most historians believe he actually died from enteric fever, not pneumonia.

According to researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, tainted drinking water at the White House likely led to Harrison’s death. In the early 19th century, sewage was dumped in a marsh only blocks away from the White House’s water supply. Harrison’s past medical history would’ve made him more susceptible to complications. In fact, the Maryland report also suggests tainted water could’ve played a factor in the death of Zachary Taylor, the 12th president, who died of cholera 16 months into his term.

3. The podium caught fire during JFK’s inauguration

This Jan. 20, 1961 file photo shows U.S. President John F. Kennedy delivering his inaugural address after taking the oath of office at Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP file)
This Jan. 20, 1961 file photo shows U.S. President John F. Kennedy delivering his inaugural address after taking the oath of office on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP file)

In many ways, the presidential inauguration for John F. Kennedy was a mess. A storm dumped eight inches of snow on Washington the night before the inauguration, leaving officials scrambling to get streets cleared and settings prepared for the ceremony. Several dignitaries weren’t able to attend due to the inclement weather.

During the ceremony, the sun’s glare on the new fallen snow was too bright for then-86-year-old Robert Frost to read a poem he penned for the occasion, so instead he recited an old poem from memory.

This scan shows a section of President John F. Kennedy's handwritten notes for his inaugural address. Pictured at top is the line, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." (Public Domain/National Archives)
This scan shows a section of President John F. Kennedy’s handwritten notes for his inaugural address. Pictured at top is the infamous line, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” (Public Domain/National Archives)

To make matters worse, while Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston gave the invocation, a small electrical fire sparked underneath the lectern. Secret service members jumped into action to smother the fire. It was blamed on a faulty heater meant to keep a set of speakers in the podium from freezing.

Despite the obstacles, the day is remembered by most for Kennedy’s iconic address where he implored Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

4. Presidents don’t have to swear in on a Bible

Unlike the constitutional oath of office that presidents must recite upon taking authority, there is nothing in American law that states the president must swear in on a Bible. A Bible is most often used as a nod to American tradition or as a symbol of the president’s beliefs.

George Washington placed his hand on a Bible during his inauguration ceremony, perhaps as a nod to show the importance of the oath – that he was willing to connect his allegiance to the country to God’s judgment. Historians dispute whether George Washington tacked on the infamous phrase “so help me God” at the end of his oath, which is not an official part of the oath but may explain his reason for including a Bible.

John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the United States. (Public Domain)
John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the United States. (Public Domain)

Most presidents have taken to the Washington tradition of swearing on a Bible, although there have been a few exceptions.

John Quincy Adams was the first to shake things up. No. 6 was a bit of a literalist, and though he was a Christian, he viewed taking the oath on a Bible as a conflict to the constitutional separation of church and state. Instead, he took the oath on a book of U.S. laws.

Teddy Roosevelt, swearing in following the assassination of President William McKinley, did not use a prop when he took the oath. He never gave a reason why he bucked tradition.

The third was Lyndon B. Johnson.

5. Johnson mistook Kennedy’s missal for a Bible

Lyndon B. Johnson, centers, takes the oath of office aboard Air Force One shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. (Public Domain/The White House)
Lyndon B. Johnson, center, takes the oath of office aboard Air Force One shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. (Public Domain/The White House)

Lyndon B. Johnson, swearing in aboard Air Force One following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, took the oath of office on a Catholic missal.

Questions emerged as to why Johnson – a protestant – would use a missal to take the oath. A Washington Post report indicated that Johnson and Federal Judge Sarah Hughes, who administered the oath, mistook the missal – a book of Catholic prayers — for a small, leather-bound Bible.

It makes sense given the chaos of the day.

6. The snowiest presidential inauguration wasn’t in January

Prior to the passing of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution in 1933, presidents were inaugurated on March 4, not January 20 as we are accustomed to today. Surprisingly, the snowiest presidential inauguration wasn’t at a January ceremony, but one in March.

William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States. (Public Domain)
William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States. (Public Domain)

On March 3, 1909, the day before William Howard Taft’s inauguration, a storm swept through Washington, bringing rains and lightning before transitioning to heavy snow. As dawn broke on March 4, the storm, which had shifted north, blew back to D.C., bringing near whiteout conditions. The storm dropped 9.8 inches of snow on Washington and more on neighboring cities.

The weather forced the ceremony inside where Taft joked, “I always knew it would be a cold day in hell when I became president.”

7. John Wilkes Booth attended Lincoln’s second inauguration

These two photos allegedly prove John Wilkes Booth attended President Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration. In the photo on the left, which shows Lincoln at the lectern, Booth's face is obstructed by a hat. On the right, before Lincoln approached the lectern, Booth's face can be seen. (Public Domain)
These two photos allegedly prove John Wilkes Booth attended President Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration. In the photo on the left, which shows Lincoln at the lectern, Booth’s face is obstructed by a hat. On the right, before Lincoln approached the lectern, Booth’s face can be seen. (Public Domain)

According to letters from John Wilkes Booth and loosely confirmed through photographs, Abraham Lincoln’s assassin attended his second inauguration.

Booth, a Confederate sympathizer, was involved in a plot to kidnap Lincoln to help the south’s chances in the Civil War. It is believed Booth obtained his ticket for the inaugural ceremony through Lucy Lambert Hale, the daughter of a former Senator from New Hampshire. Booth and Hale had a romantic relationship and were secretly engaged. Hale, along with her father, were staunch abolitionists. She was never investigated as a suspect in Lincoln’s assassination and historians have never found any evidence that she was aware of Booth’s plot or his southern sympathies.

Booth allegedly confided in a friend that he had “an excellent chance” to kill Lincoln at the inauguration. However, at that time, the plan to kidnap the president was still on. The plan unraveled shortly after the inauguration as the Confederacy’s days appeared numbered and Booth quickly moved to assassinate the president.

An article released in a 1956 issue of Life Magazine show photos that identify Booth standing on a balcony behind Lincoln at his second inauguration. Included are two photos by photographer Alexander Gardner that allegedly show Booth at the ceremony. The photo on the left shows President Lincoln at the lectern but Booth isn’t seen clearly because his face is moving and is partially blocked by another attendee’s hat. In the photo on the right, taken before Lincoln has taken the dais, you can more clearly see Booth’s face.

8. Trump will be No. 45, but he’s actually No. 44

President-elect Donald Trump will become the 45th President of the United States when he takes the oath of office Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (AP file)
President-elect Donald Trump will become the 45th President of the United States when he takes the oath of office Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (AP file)

Donald Trump will become the 45th President of the United States when he takes the oath of office Jan. 20. However, only 44 people have served as Commander-in-Chief.

Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th President of the United States. (Public Domain)
Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th President of the United States. (Public Domain)

Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms as president and is considered both the 22nd and 24th President of the United States.

Following his first term, Cleveland won the 1888 popular vote but lost the Electoral College to Republican Benjamin Harrison. Cleveland lost his home state of New York by less than 15,000 votes and Harrison’s home state of Indiana by less than 3,000 votes, swinging the election in Harrison’s favor. Cleveland ran atop the Democratic ticket again in 1892 and won by wide margins after winning over throngs of labor supporters. Harrison’s campaign also was damaged by a popular third-party run by James Weaver, who ran under the Populist Party.

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