“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Since at least 1901, a Joint Congressional Committee on Inauguration has formed every four years to arrange the inauguration of the next President of the United States. Parades are held, and inaugural balls are planned. But nothing compares to the central ceremony held, in modern practice, on the West Front of the Capitol, where the President-Elect takes the oath of office as prescribed in the United States Constitution. With many Members of Congress both in attendance and charged with preparing for the event, the U.S. House of Representatives has a long history with this momentous quadrennial event.
Joint Meetings, Joint Sessions, & Inaugurations
Congress has hosted the event since George Washington’s first inauguration in 1789. Inaugurations have always been formal joint gatherings. Inaugurations are Joint Sessions when both houses of Congress are in session, and they process to the ceremony as part of the business of the day. This has become formal practice in modern times. Often in the 19th century, however, one or both houses were not in session or were in recess at the time of the ceremony.
Presidents, Vice Presidents, & Coinciding Sessions of Congress
From 1789 until 1933, the terms of President and Vice President and the term of the Congress coincided, beginning on March 4 and ending on March 3. This all changed when the 20th amendment to the Constitution was adopted in 1933. Find out more about these changes and exactly which Congresses overlap with each President.
The First Inauguration at Federal Hall in New York City
On April 30, 1789, George Washington was sworn in as President of the United States before a Joint Meeting of Congress at Federal Hall in New York City. Around one o’clock, Washington took the oath of office on the balcony of Federal Hall, allowing the crowd of spectators to witness the event. After taking the oath, Washington delivered his inaugural address in the Senate Chamber.
The Mysterious National Hotel Disease
On June 24, 1859, David F. Robison of Pennsylvania died at his home in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, of complications from the mysterious National Hotel Disease, contracted more than two years earlier at the time of President James Buchanan’s inauguration. By some accounts, nearly three dozen people died from the affliction and dozens more were sickened. The National (located on the site of the present-day Newseum) was one of the city’s most popular and plush hotels, serving a clientele of influential politicians, particularly southern Members of Congress.
The First Inauguration after the Lame Duck Amendment
On January 20, 1937, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn into office at the U.S. Capitol for a second term as President. The inauguration of Roosevelt and Vice President John Nance Garner, the Speaker of the House during the 72nd Congress (1931–1933), was the first to occur after the passage of the 20th Amendment. Nicknamed the Lame Duck Amendment, it moved the inauguration date from March 4th to January 20th. The amendment also changed the opening date of a new Congress to January 3rd, thereby eliminating what had been an extended period between Election Day and the swearing-in of the new Congress (the so-called Lame Duck session when the outgoing Congress often engaged in a flurry of business). Despite cold, soaking rain, a large crowd assembled in the nation’s capital to witness the first January inauguration.
John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts
Known in the House as “Old Man Eloquent,” John Quincy Adams is the only President to serve in the chamber after his term in the White House. He delivered his Inaugural Address in the Hall of the House of Representatives (now known as Statuary Hall) on March 4, 1825. Almost exactly 23 years later, Adams collapsed at his desk in that very chamber before being carried into the Speaker’s Room (now the Lindy Claiborne Boggs Congressional Women’s Reading Room) where he died two days later.
James K. Polk of Tennessee
James K. Polk remains the only person to serve as both Speaker of the House and President of the United States. He was sworn in as President on March 4, 1845, amid rain and thunderstorms. The ceremony also had the distinction of being the first covered by telegraph.
The Inauguration of President Cleveland Stereoview
Significant events like the inauguration were increasingly popular subjects for steroviews in the later years of the 19th-century, as opposed to staged narratives and virtual tours of famous sights that had dominated the market in earlier decades.
House Roof Pass
Passes for inaugurations sometimes led spectators to unusual places. This example admitted the bearer to a seat on the roof of the Capitol, for the 1965 inauguration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Color-coding helped the Sergeant at Arms’ staff direct visitors to the proper locations in the hours leading up to the ceremony.
Inaugural Platform, Capitol
The East Front of the Capitol was the site of presidential inaugurations from 1829 until the 1980s. Every four years, massive temporary stands were built for the event. In this photograph, the platform for Woodrow Wilson’s first inauguration was already in place, and trestle benches were being built for honored, if uncomfortable, attendees.
Cowles to Cannon
During the early 1900s, many Members arrived early to attend inauguration and network with other Members of Congress and executive department employees before the start of a new Congress. In this record from 1909, North Carolina freshman Charles Cowles requested favors in the form of committee assignments from Speaker Joe Cannon. Cowles lost re-election in 1910.
This is part of a series of blog posts for educators, highlighting the resources available on History, Art & Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives. For lesson plans, fact sheets, glossaries, and other materials for the classroom, see the website's Education section.Follow @USHouseHistory