Inaugural History

For more than 200 years, America’s citizens have witnessed the Inauguration ceremonies of the President and Vice President of the United States.

From the first Inauguration of George Washington, in New York City, in 1789, to today, as we prepare for the 56th quadrennial Presidential Inauguration, the swearing-in ceremony represents both national renewal and continuity of leadership.

As each president has offered a vision for America’s future, we reflect on the heritage of Inaugurations past.

"I Do Solemnly Swear"

On March 4th, 1801, Thomas Jefferson walked the short distance from his boardinghouse to the nearby Capitol Building to take the oath of office as president of the United States. At a joint session of Congress, assembled in the Senate Chamber, he became the first president inaugurated in the new federal city of Washington. The government had moved from Philadelphia just months before, and Jefferson's capital was a city of unfinished buildings and muddy roads.

As the nation grew in size, railroads cut travel time and presidential inaugurations increased proportionately in scope. Barely a thousand people attended Thomas Jefferson's 1801 inauguration, but in 1853 a crowd of 20,000 gathered on the East Front of the Capitol to watch Franklin Pierce become the 14th president of the United States.

By Pierce’s time, the emergence of the illustrated weekly newspaper also brought the inauguration into the homes of people around the nation.

A new technique in the engraving process enabled such publications as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and Harper’s Weekly to publish images of inaugural festivities and give them wide distribution within a week. By cutting a wooden engraving block into several pieces, numerous artisans could work on a single image at once, drastically reducing production time.

An exhibit from the U.S. Senate features the historic engravings, which depict inaugural festivities at the Capitol and around Washington, D.C.

It begins with the 1853 inauguration, when the great 19th century weekly news magazines began to come into their own, and ends with 1905, a time when photographic techniques had largely overtaken the use of engraved images in news periodicals. Click Here to view a half century of Inaugural images.

What Happens on Inauguration Day?

So, what exactly happens on the day a new president in sworn into office? The following chronicles a typical day for the president-elect, from the morning worship service to the nighttime Inaugural balls.

Morning Worship Service
The tradition of attending a morning worship service on Inauguration Day began with Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933.
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Procession to the Capitol
By tradition, the outgoing President accompanies the President-elect to the Capitol for the swearing-in ceremony.
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Vice President’s Swearing-In Ceremony
Until 1937, the Vice President was sworn into office in the Senate chamber.
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President’s Swearing-In Ceremony
There have been 54 formal Presidential Inaugural ceremonies, held at over 10 different locations.
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Inaugural Address
Since George Washington in 1789, every President has delivered an Inaugural address, ranging from 8,445 words, to just 135.
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Departure of the Outgoing President
Following the inaugural ceremony on the west front of the U.S. Capitol, the outgoing President and First Lady leave the Capitol to begin their post-presidential lives.
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Inaugural Luncheon
Since 1953, the JCCIC has hosted a luncheon at the U.S. Capitol for the new President, Vice President, and guests.
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Inaugural Parade
While early parades were mostly military escorts, by 1841, floats, citizens groups, and bands became standard.
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Inaugural Ball
The first Inaugural ball in Washington was thrown for James and Dolley Madison in 1809, at Long's Hotel. There have been as many as 14 balls.
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Source: U.S. Senate Website

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