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Were American Presidents Always Inaugurated Outdoors?

By

James Monroe

James Monroe: a bitter controversy over chairs led to his outdoor inauguration

Library of Congress
Question: Were American Presidents Always Inaugurated Outdoors?
Answer:

No. Tradition holds that presidents take the oath of office outside the US Capitol, but outdoor inaugural ceremonies were a rarity in the early years of the nation.

The first inauguration did take place outside, but large outdoor inaugurations did not become standard practice for another 40 years.

The first president, George Washington, took the oath of office on a balcony of Federal Hall in New York City on April 30, 1789. A large crowd gathered for the celebratory event.

When Washington was sworn in for the second time, on March 4, 1793, the ceremony took place in Philadelphia, where the federal government was then located. The ceremony was held indoors, in the US Senate chamber of Congress Hall. The second president, John Adams, was also sworn in at Congress Hall, in the chamber of the US House of Representatives, on March 4, 1797.

The Federal Government, and Inaugurations, Moved to Washington, D.C.

The first president to take the oath of office in the new federal city of Washington, D.C. was Thomas Jefferson. He was sworn in on March 4, 1801, in the US Senate chamber of the Capitol, which was still under construction.

Jefferson’s second inaugural, and the two inaugurals of his successor James Madison also took place indoors at the US Capitol.

The tradition of holding inaugurations inside the Capitol building was interrupted because British troops burned the Capitol (as well as the White House) in August 1814. When James Monroe was to be inaugurated in 1817, the Capitol was still being rebuilt.

The US Congress had been meeting in a hastily constructed building known as the “Brick Capitol,” which stood on the site of the current US Supreme Court building. It seemed logical that Monroe would be inaugurated inside that building, but controversy changed those plans.

A Fight Over Chairs Moved an Inauguration Outdoors

A senate committee was in charge of arrangements for Monroe’s inauguration, scheduled for March 4, 1817. The senators wanted to use the more spacious chamber of the House of Representatives, and delivered a letter to the Speaker of the House, Henry Clay, requesting the use of the chamber.

Clay took offense, and not just over the use of the House chamber. Some political opponents of Clay said that he was angry because Monroe had not chosen him to be secretary of state, which, in the early years of the United States, was generally seen as a stepping stone to the presidency.

Those friendly to Clay said his opposition to using the House chamber for the inauguration was because he did not believe the floor would support a large crowd.

Whatever the root of the controversy might have been, a public disagreement about chairs became the ostensible reason for the squabble. Henry Clay was furious that the senators intended to bring the “fine red chairs” of the Senate into the chamber. He was said to be partial to the “plain democratic chairs” of the House of Representatives.

The impasse over chairs turned ugly, and the senate committee decided to avoid the whole issue by simply moving the ceremony outdoors. A temporary portico was built outside the Brick Capitol, and that’s where James Monroe took the oath and delivered his first inaugural address, on March 4, 1817.

The weather was warm and sunny and a newspaper of the day, the National Intelligencer, described the pleasant and harmonious scene: “Such a concourse was never before seen in Washington; the number of persons present has actually been estimated at from five to eight thousand. Yet notwithstanding the magnitude of the assemblage, we have heard of no accident.”

And while the crowd was enormous for Washington, D.C. at that time, one person was conspicuously absent. Speaker of the House Henry Clay, still angry about chairs, or perhaps because he had not been named secretary of state, did not attend.

Four years later, James Monroe took the oath of office for the second time inside the rebuilt Capitol. John Quincy Adams was also inaugurated inside the Capitol, on March 4, 1825.

Outdoor Inaugurations Returned With Andrew Jackson

When Andrew Jackson ran in the election of 1828, he was presented as a man of the people. And when he traveled from Tennessee for his inauguration, thousands of other Americans flocked to Washington to witness the event.

Jackson’s inauguration on March 4, 1829 drew the biggest crowd the city of Washington had even seen. Thousands gathered at the Capitol, and a ship’s cable was stretched in front of the crowd to hold it back. After Jackson delivered his inaugural address and took the oath (at that time the speech came first), thousands of people did suddenly rush toward the inaugural platform on the east front of the Capitol.

Andrew Jackson retreated inside the building to escape the surging crowd. And his drawing power was such that when a reception was held at the White House that evening, so many people came that the building was nearly destroyed.

Despite the legendarily raucous reputation of Jackson’s inauguration, the idea of holding the ceremony as a large public event took hold. And it became traditional for presidents to take the oath of office on the east front of the Capitol (the location was changed to the west front of the building in 1981).

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