This Day in History: The History of Presidential Inaugurations
On this day in history, twelve United States Presidents have been inaugurated—and we will inaugurate yet another today.
We didn’t used to inaugurate Presidents on January 20. Most of our Presidents were inaugurated on March 4; however, the first President, George Washington, had his own unique inauguration date. On April 30, 1789, Washington became our first President.
The country was just getting off the ground, and there was no real schedule for anything yet. In fact, Washington’s first inauguration got held up for weeks by one simple fact: The first Congress could not achieve a quorum!
The Confederation Congress had provided that the new Constitution should go into effect on March 4, 1789. All members of Congress were supposed to show up in New York on that day.
Except they didn’t.
Like so many other events in our early history, the complications of slow communications and travel prevented many from being on time. On the appointed day, only 8 Senators and 13 Congressmen had arrived in New York. Not nearly enough to begin congressional business! It would be a full month before a congressional quorum was finally achieved.
What does this quorum have to do with the presidential election? Quite a lot, actually. Washington had not been formally elected President yet. The electoral votes had been cast, but Congress had been unable to count the ballots and declare a winner due to the lack of quorum. Finally, on April 6, the votes were counted and Washington was declared the winner of the presidential election. He was inaugurated on April 30.
Washington’s first term wasn’t a full four years. His term was considered complete on March 4, 1793, the anniversary of the day that had been designated for “commencing proceedings under the said constitution.” Thus, during his second inauguration, Washington became the first of many Presidents to be inaugurated on March 4.
For nearly 150 years, March 4 would serve as inauguration day for U.S. Presidents (unless it fell on a Sunday). This tradition was finally broken during the FDR administration.
By then, a more specific timeline for elections had been settled upon. State elections to choose presidential electors were being held in early November, just as they are today. November to March is a pretty long lame duck session! Unsurprisingly, Americans got tired of it, and the inauguration date was finally changed. But did you know that it took a constitutional amendment, the 20th Amendment, to make that change happen?
Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first to be sworn into office on the January 20 following a presidential election year. Eleven other Presidents have since done the same.
If you are reading this post after 12:00 p.m. ET, then make it: “Twelve other Presidents have since done the same.”
Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (September 13, 1788)
Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, The Opening of the First Congress in New York City