President Grant taking the oath of office, 3/4/1873. [Library of Congress]

Four More Years

Presidential Inaugurations

As Washington prepares for the next four years, BackStory looks back at some of the more dramatic presidential transitions from the past. On this show, the hosts explore several high-stakes presidential inaugurations and learn what each one tells us about the social and political forces at work at the time. From George Washington’s trembling voice while taking the Oath of Office to the general apathy surround Lincoln’s second inauguration, we’ll remember why inaugurations really matter.

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ED: This is BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers.

BARACK OBAMA: I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear.

ED: Barack Obama took his first oath of office in 2009. It went smoothly except for one little mistake.

JOHN ROBERTS: That I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully.

BARACK OBAMA: That I will execute–

JOHN ROBERTS: Faithfully the office of president of the United States.

BARACK OBAMA: The office of president of the United States faithfully.

ED: Mixing up a few words is trivial compared to the trials of other incoming presidents, like Rutherford B. Hayes, for example.

GEORGE DOWNS: He gets many letters telling them, you’re going to get killed on the way. You’re going to get jumped.

ED: Even the first president, a unanimously elected war hero, still felt the heat.

JOANNE FREEMAN: Washington was so nervous and so scared that he was literally shaking. And his voice was trembling. He was honestly terrified.

ED: A history of presidential inaugurations, today on BackStory. First, some history in the making.

PETER: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

ED: From the Virginia foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.

BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh and I’m here with Ed Ayers.

ED: Hey.

BRIAN: And Peter Onuf’s with us.

PETER: Hey, Brian.

BRIAN: And this–


BRIAN: –is Joanne Freeman. She’s an historian at Yale University who specializes in America’s founding era. And she told me this amazing story the other day about a guy named William Maclay. Maclay was one of Pennsylvania’s first US senators, meaning that he was in the Senate when George Washington was president.

JOANNE FREEMAN: And Maclay really admired Washington. He calls him the first of men throughout his diary. And he doesn’t know what to do whenever he’s around Washington. Like, his bows, he thinks they’re awkward and he doesn’t know where to stand or where to look.

BRIAN: He’s infatuated.

JOANNE FREEMAN: He is and a little awestruck. And he describes in his diary a dinner party where he enters the room and Washington’s at the door. And he’s totally flustered. And he makes a bow that he thinks looks really stupid. And he sees an empty seat across the room by some guys from Rhode Island. And he says, I’m heading for the empty seat by the Rhode Island guys. And as he takes a few steps–

BRIAN: Oh, no, not Rhode Island.

JOANNE FREEMAN: I know, heaven forbid. As he makes a few steps away from Washington, he sees out of the corner of his eye, Washington gesture for him to come and sit near him. So Maclay pauses and he thinks to himself what would be the good sort of patriotic, small, r, republican, thing to do?

Because if I turn around and I take that seat, I’m treating him kind of like a monarch. And if I treat him like a monarch, he’s going to think he’s a monarch. And if he thinks he’s a monarch, he’ll become a monarch and then we’ll destroy the government. So he doesn’t take the seat. He keeps walking because he’s afraid that if he takes that seat, it could destroy the government.

BRIAN: This was the level of anxiety swirling around George Washington in 1789 as he abandoned life as a retired war hero and assumed the role of chief executive. And if you think Maclay was worried about details, Washington was 10 times more worried. Nobody sweat the minute details more than George Washington.

JOANNE FREEMAN: Every single thing. Like, should he shake hands with common American citizens? Yes or no? He debated everything.

BRIAN: What was the answer to that?

JOANNE FREEMAN: Actually, the answer to that was no.

BRIAN: No. Uh huh.

JOANNE FREEMAN: And that was commented on. Oh, I see, well, in that case, what does that mean? Is he acting monarchical? Is he sort of acting like a king?

And that was really the big underlying stakes for Washington as president as the default in the late 18th century in the world at large was king. And there wasn’t such a thing as a president. No one knew what that was.

They sort of invented this new, interesting kind of national executive with the Constitution. But they were making it up, except for the basics in the Constitution, as far as what the office really was and what it felt like and the sort of tone of the thing. They really had to make it up as they went along.

ED: Now when Barack Obama puts his hand on a Bible and repeats after the Chief Justice this week, he will be reenacting a rite performed by 43 presidents before him. And it’s easy to understand how, for many people, these presidential inaugurations just seem like another tired piece of political theatre, created and played for maximum effect. But the story we heard a moment ago reminds us that there have been times in American history when inaugurations were anything but tired, times when the incredibly high stakes of a presidential transition were played out in the inauguration itself.

PETER: And so today on the show we’re going to zero in on a few of these high stakes inaugurations. We have got stories that just may change your thinking about this quadrennial event.

BRIAN: We’ll begin in New York City, the nation’s very first capital. The man of the hour, of course, was George Washington. Here’s historian Joanne Freeman again.

JOANNE FREEMAN: You can see that he decided very carefully what he was going to wear to his inauguration. He wore homespun American cloth made in Connecticut. It was apparently beautiful homespun cloth so that you wouldn’t have known from looking at it that that’s what it was.

But symbolically speaking, he was trying to be sort of plain, straightforward guy. I’m not a king, not me. But he had diamond buckles on his shoes. So that was like, you know, a great Washington compromise. It was like, well, yes, I’m dressed in homespun like any other American, except for those diamonds.

He also made a decision, in the afternoons very often he would take these walks around the block, very ostentatiously around 2:00, 3:00 in the afternoon. He would leave and walk around the block and stop and look up at a church clock and then set his watch and then go back to his office. And that was a very explicit political statement that I don’t always ride in a carriage. Look at me, I’m walking in the street.

And not only was that the message, but people got the message. And he got fan mail. Great thing, George, the walks. We love it.

BRIAN: So to go back to the inauguration, take us through the inauguration as though you were commenting on– you were doing the color for a football game. Comment on how he’s doing on toeing this thin line between veering towards monarchy or simply being an unimportant plebeian.

JOANNE FREEMAN: Well, certainly the American people were not treating him like a plebeian on his way up. He came up from Virginia from Mount Vernon up to New York, which was the first capital. And there were Hosannas being sung the entire way up and flowers strewn in his path and women sort of with banners. And there was a whole celebration all the way through his path.

BRIAN: Now, help me out. I’m certain he wasn’t in a limousine. So how was he processing?

JOANNE FREEMAN: No. For the most part he was in a carriage.

BRIAN: Wasn’t that a little dangerous, a little monarchist, perhaps?

JOANNE FREEMAN: Well, yeah. And as a matter of fact, he got some criticism, not inaugural criticism, but generally speaking. He had a very fancy carriage and he had a lot of white horses. And people who were prone to worry about a monarchy, that was one of the things they looked at was, oh, we know he’s president and everything. But that’s an awfully fancy carriage and a lot of fancy horses.

So the inauguration, I think America was in yippee mode. And so I don’t think that they were yet at that moment, sort of coming down on his head for being monarchical. And there were barges in Manhattan harbor and he was sort of conducted on this sort of ceremonial barge that he embarked from and was taken to Federal Hall where he could take the oath of office. But the sort of wonderful part about this is what was going on at Federal Hall, which is where Congress was meeting, before this.

Because Congress, and in particular the Senate, was debating what the heck should happen during an inauguration because nobody knew. First of all, what is a president? And, secondly, how do you inaugurate one?

BRIAN: Right.

JOANNE FREEMAN: Like what’s supposed to happen? So there are these really anxious debates about what should happen. And they were sort of inanely detailed debates like should the Senate stand when the president enters the room? Because that’s treating him kind of like a monarch, but on the other hand, if they don’t stand, that’s kind of being disrespectful.

They sort of agonized over it. I mean, in the end I think they stood and then sat and then Washington went out on the balcony of Federal Hall to take the oath of office. And then he came back into the Senate chamber and he gave a very brief address to both houses of Congress, which is the equivalent of the first inaugural address.

Indeed, the first thing he says is that on the one hand, he’s really honored and on the other hand, he’s really scared because he knows all of the many ways in which he’s not qualified to do this job. And he also knows that as president, everyone will be watching him not know how to do it. So it’s sort of this wonderful, poignant kind of honest moment on the part of Washington.

But what’s also wonderful about the moment is Washington was so nervous and so scared that he was literally shaking. He was holding a speech and his hands were shaking and his voice was trembling. He was honestly terrified about what was happening at that moment and the sort of big bundle of nothingness that he was walking into as the first president of the United States. He said, not long after that, I walk on untrodden ground. He just didn’t know what was coming.

BRIAN: Now, of course, that inaugural, as important as it was, is really just a point and not a line. And we can’t begin to get a line on the inaugural until we have a few more. So take us through Adams’s inaugural and Jefferson’s, if you would.

JOANNE FREEMAN: Sure. In a way, Adams’s inaugural is not that different from Washington’s.

BRIAN: Right. Another Federalist.

JOANNE FREEMAN: Another Federalist. And in a lot of ways, his inaugural, he says the same sorts of things. I hope I’m up to the job. I’m not precisely sure what Adams wore to his inauguration. But generally speaking, when he dressed formally, he did wear a ceremonial sword, which considering that he had never had any military service of any kind was just a real borrowing from Washington. Well, if he wears one, then I guess I’ll do that too. That’s part of the presidency suit.

But it’s really Jefferson’s inaugural address that has a very strong political statement in it for the first time. And that’s because his election is so contested and took a long time for them to figure out who actually was the president. When he finally is the president and gives that inaugural address, he’s very firm about trying to smooth over party differences that made that election so fierce and so bitter.

So he actually does come out and say, we are all Federalists. We are all Republicans. Really, we should put some of those differences behind us and move ahead as a nation.

BRIAN: Joanne, thanks so much for joining us today.

JOANNE FREEMAN: Oh, thanks. It’s been great being here.

BRIAN: Joanne Freeman is a professor of history at Yale University.

ED: Now, George Washington may have been the first president to be so self conscious about his clothes on inauguration day. But plenty of others have paid special attention to dress codes as well. Take for instance, George H. W. Bush.

TIM MCBRIDE: We did have one funny little event take place.

ED: This is Timothy McBride. When Bush became president in 1989, McBride was serving as his personal aid.

TIM MCBRIDE: Just moments before he was to go out on the inaugural stand, he noticed that Mrs. Reagan was bundling up President Reagan quite tightly to ensure that he didn’t catch a chill. It was a somewhat balmy day. And President-elect Bush had already told me he would not be using his overcoat. So we left his overcoat in the limousine.

When he saw that Mrs. Reagan was bundling up President Reagan, he turned to me and said I need my overcoat. He had this great concern that the perception would be that he was heartier than President Reagan. I said, but, sir, it’s four stories below where we are right now and you’re about to be taken out to the inaugural stand.

So I quickly asked if my coat would do, which was a gray wool overcoat, same size. He put it on, walked out in my coat, and then promptly took it off and was sworn in without a coat. What strikes me most about that story and about that man is on the day that one could argue is the most important day of his life, what he was worrying about was in some way trying to upstage the man for whom he’d been vice president for the last eight years. I was very touched by that display of respect for President Reagan that Mr. Bush showed.

BRIAN: That’s Tim McBride. He’s a former aide to the first President Bush.

ED: It’s time for a short break. When we come back, we’ll look at the greatest inaugural address ever given, an address that at the time just made people shrug.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute. We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. We’re talking today about presidential inaugurations and about times in history when they’ve really mattered. We’re going to turn now to the highlight of any inauguration, and that’s the speech.

ED: In March of 1865, Abraham Lincoln delivered what is easily the most famous inaugural speech in US history. He’d been re elected a few months earlier and the Civil War was just about over. Americans were wondering what would come next? How would the rebel states rejoin the Union? What would become of former slaves?

PETER: People assumed Lincoln would answer these tricky questions. They expected a blueprint for the next four years, something like Lincoln’s first inaugural. But that’s not what they got.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: Fellow countrymen, at this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at first.

GEORGE RABLE: Well, he starts by, in some ways, telling us what he’s not going to say.

PETER: This is George Rable, an historian at the University of Alabama.

GEORGE RABLE: He says nothing about his administration. He says very little about the war. He simply says that the progress of our arms appears to be satisfactory and sort of leaves it at that and then goes on to this meditation on the war’s meaning.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago–

GEORGE RABLE: He said four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: All dreaded it. All sought to avoid it.

GEORGE RABLE: Or in other words, both the secessionists and the unionists hoped to avoid war. He’s sort of focusing on what Northerners and Southerners had in common.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.

GEORGE RABLE: And the war came, which is a wonderful, wonderful sentence.

PETER: It is wonderful.

GEORGE RABLE: In some ways it’s a way to avoid casting blame on anyone. It’s like the war just sort of came and no one was responsible.

PETER: And it suggests agency, not necessarily of humans, that it somehow may be providential.

GEORGE RABLE: It does suggest providential agency. And, of course, that’s exactly what he’s going to talk about in the rest of the inaugural.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: The almighty has his own purposes. Woe unto the world because of offences for it must needs be that offenses come. But woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.

GEORGE RABLE: Lincoln never asserts that God is on the side of the Union, at least in the unequivocal way that many Northerners would have done, which is why this speech is very unusual.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which in the providence of God must needs come, but which having continued through his appointed timing now whilst remove and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war–

GEORGE RABLE: He still says about the war, he give to both the North and South. Lincoln lets no one off the hook. So he talks about slavery. And he considers it not a Southern institution but a national institution. And this war will continue until that sin has been atoned for.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the last shall be paid by another, drawn with a sword, as said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said that the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

GEORGE RABLE: I mean, that’s very tough preaching.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for–

GEORGE RABLE: If you think of that image of binding up wounds, those wounds can still take a long time to heal. And they may heal only imperfectly. And if you turn to the soldiers, when you think of all the men who were grievously wounded during the war, those wounds heal. But a lot of them didn’t heal completely. And that might also be true of the nation as well.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: To do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

GEORGE RABLE: This is a somber time, even for the victors. Given the carnage and destruction involved, it had to be. And the contemporary reaction to this inaugural was much more muted than the reaction to the first inaugural.

PETER: But, George, Lincoln understood that he would not get an enthusiastic response but that it might grow on people.

GEORGE RABLE: He did. There’s a wonderful letter he wrote to a New York politician with that delightful name, Thurlow Weed, who congratulated him on the address. And he wrote back to Weed. He thanked him.

And he said, “I expect it to wear as well or, perhaps, better than anything I have produced. I believe it is not immediately popular. Men are not flattered by being shown that there’s been a difference of purpose between the almighty and them. But to deny it, however, in this case is to deny that there is a God governing the world.”

And I think Lincoln was right. I mean, it was not immediately popular. Lincoln is doing something that presidents don’t do. He is saying here’s some difficult questions and I don’t necessarily have the answers. And that’s not what we expect of political leaders in our day and, I don’t think, in Lincoln’s day either.

PETER: Walking us through Lincoln’s second inaugural was George Rabel, an historian at the University of Alabama. As for Lincoln, if you think you know who performed that reading, send us an email. All correct guesses will be rewarded with a limited edition BackStory t-shirt. We could only afford a few of them. Our address is

ED: Lincoln wasn’t the only president inaugurated during the civil war years. There was also Jefferson Davis, a senator from Mississippi who quit the Senate in January of 1861. The very next month, he was appointed provisional president of the Confederate States of America and boarded a train for Montgomery, Alabama. Along the way, he was greeted by massive, cheering crowds.

WILLIAM COOPER: The inauguration was very much like inaugurations in Washington. They had a parade, they had bands, they had militia companies, they had cannon firring. It was just like an American inauguration.

ED: This is William Cooper, a Jefferson Davis biographer at Louisiana State University.

WILLIAM COOPER: In his speech he talked about the peaceful method of secession, that nobody was hurt, that nothing was overturned. There was no quote, “revolution,” unquote. He said the Confederacy had no intention to be an aggressive nation in any way, shape, or form. And I think the people who heard this talk, they liked what he had to say. It was not a somber talk.

ED: Did he talk about slavery in his inaugural speech?

GEORGE RABLE: He never used the word slavery. But what he talked about was homogeneity of the population, of one purpose, and loyalty to domestic institutions, never used the word slavery. But there’s several instances in there where there’s no doubt what he’s talking about.

ED: Why would he not actually say the S-word?

WILLIAM COOPER: I can’t answer that, Ed. I just really don’t know why. My assumption has always been that everybody there understood what it was about. When they said domestic institutions and when they said homogeneity– they knew what they were talking about when he said, for example, that nobody is going to be attacking us, we can protect ourselves. And he meant nobody was going to be attacking their institutions, chiefly, slavery.

ED: So Jefferson Davis is appointed provisional president in early 1861. But then there is an election in November of 1861. And so he gets to be inaugurated, in some ways, a second time in February of ’62.

JOANNE FREEMAN: That’s right. He does.

ED: And he is inaugurated in my adopted home of Richmond, Virginia.

GEORGE RABLE: Well, the day of the inauguration was a terrible day, raining and cold, dark. It’s a terrible day. But Davis determines that he’s going to stay outside. An umbrella was held up over his head for him.

Even so, there was a great crowd and one of the newspaper account said it looked like a plantation of mushrooms because of all the umbrellas that were up out there. But his speech was quite interesting because in this address he emphasized the connection with the American Revolution. And he said that the Confederacy was going through difficult times.

And he said there would be more difficult times. This was not going to be any bed of roses. But he said our forebears went through difficult times in the revolution, that Washington went through difficult times. But our forbears prevailed. And he said, we’re going to prevail as well.

ED: Now, he’s inaugurated on February 22.

GEORGE RABLE: Absolutely.

ED: Why that date?

GEORGE RABLE: Because that was George Washington’s birthday. He was also inaugurated right under the greater question statue of Washington that sits right by the Virginia capital, which was, of course, where the Confederate Congress sat. It was intentional. The Confederates thought they were maintaining the true legacy of the revolution. They thought they were, in many ways, the true United States, that the United States they left had somehow gone astray.

ED: Now, you’ve written very interestingly about a third inauguration that Jefferson Davis experienced. Can you tell us about that?

GEORGE RABLE: Well, yes. In 1886, of course, Davis was an elderly gentleman and in bad health. He was living on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. But a delegation from Montgomery, Alabama went down and invited him to come be an honored guest for laying the cornerstone for a monument for Alabama soldiers, Confederate soldiers. He got on the train with them and they went back to Montgomery.

And the whole way back, from the Mississippi Gulf Coast up to Montgomery, it was a triumphal tour. It was like his trip from Mississippi to Montgomery the first time. Every time the train stopped, the people would bring flowers.

There were crowds out along the railway. And when he got to Montgomery, even though the weather was bad– he connected with bad weather all the time, Ed. Even though the weather was bad, there was a great throng to meet him. And he went to the same hotel he stayed in when he became the Confederate provisional president. He even stayed in the same room in that hotel.

ED: Wow.

GEORGE RABLE: And he went up to the state capital, which would have been the Confederate capital. There were great crowds of people. Some of the witnesses said folks were almost fainting when they touched him, when they saw him.

And in his remarks he simply talked about the glories of the Confederacy. And he said the Confederates had done the right thing, secession was right, and they had fought a virtuous war. He called it the only war that Christianity would sanction because it was a defensive war against an aggressive, evil enemy.

ED: Did he talk about the domestic institutions?

GEORGE RABLE: No, never did mention that.

ED: At all?

GEORGE RABLE: Not at all.

ED: So this is a kind of inauguration turned around. It’s an inauguration of looking back and sort of sanctifying what had happened–

GEORGE RABLE: Absolutely.

ED: –rather than hoping for what’s going to happen, right?

GEORGE RABLE: That’s right. And of course, Davis, by this time has become a great hero of the white south. Davis had been the leader and more terribly important, he’d been put in prison for two years. And most Southerners didn’t think they had done anything wrong when they seceded. So if Davis had been put in prison, they should have been put in prison. Thus, he had suffered for them.

ED: A sort of a Christ like figure, right?

GEORGE RABLE: Almost. And he was an old man with white hair, frail. And he was revered. And I think that this second inaugural in Montgomery, this sort of peon to the lost cause had more lasting impact than his first one because, as you well know, this lost cause idea of the confederacy had a powerfully long life. It’s even still with us. And it fought, transcended the bounds of the formal Confederate states.

ED: And you think that there was something about this ceremony, the reenacting of the first inauguration that kind of gave this weight and sanction.

GEORGE RABLE: I think it did and the way the crowd reacted to him.

ED: And in the same way that you don’t really see much evidence of foreboding in the first inauguration, you don’t see much evidence of regret or of repentance in the third one.

GEORGE RABLE: Oh, no. No regret whatever.

ED: And it has always struck me that the story Jefferson Davis told in all three inaugurals was still the story the South was telling itself throughout the war and for generations afterwards, that because we had followed the forms of great nations, of Christian nations, we were a legitimate nation and that, therefore, the motives of the Confederacy really could not be challenged. And there was no reason to look beneath anything they said because they had announced in these great ceremonies exactly who they were, and they expected to be taken at their word.

GEORGE RABLE: You’re absolutely correct. I agree with everything you said.

ED: All right. Will, thank you so much. That was really fascinating.

GEORGE RABLE: Well, thank you. I enjoyed talking with you.

ED: William Cooper is a professor of history at Louisiana State University. He’s the author of We Have The War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War.

BRIAN: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory and we’re talking today about presidential inaugurations. And, guys, as great as Lincoln’s or even Davis’s inaugural addresses may have been, there is one thing about them that pales compared to any speech in my century. The audience. Nobody heard all those speeches back in your century. In fact, I kind of feel bad for you guys spending all your time studying the 18th and 19th century. You miss out on all the really cool technology that comes along in the 20th century. I’m not even going to go with my strong suits of television, I can reach all the way back to 1925, back to radio. Listen to Calvin Coolidge’s presidential inauguration.

CALVIN COOLIDGE: Because of what America is and what America has done, a firmer courage, a higher hope inspires the heart of all humanity.

BRIAN: Can you guys feel that power? It’s like you’re right there with him. You know, I just feel sorry for those citizens back in the 19th and 18th century who were denied the wonders of radio.

PETER: Yeah, well, don’t feel too sorry for them, Brian. I think what we’re talking about are ways in which you think we’re connected with this spectacle, with this event, on a very deeply personal level. Well, I think 18th century and early 19th century, through the 19th century, maybe it was more real for them. And let me explain why.

ED: I’m with you, Peter.

PETER: All right. You got an event, inauguration day. And when Jefferson gives his inaugural address– now, he’s already given it to the printer. And it’s passed out to people as they leave the Senate. They didn’t hear him there because he’s a lousy public speaker.

But that text circulated across the country. By the next day, it had been published in Alexandria and in Baltimore. And people were reading it, not just reading it silently but reading it aloud on the courthouse steps at post offices across the country. And every time that address is performed, think of the audience. They are so into it. They are there.

ED: And you got in the 19th century, the message coming over the telegraph. James K. Polk, 1845, words coming in, the Democrats on one side, the Wigs on the other. Let me translate this into terms that even Brian might understand, Peter. I think the analogy is the sports bar where people are coming together, yeah, that’s our team.

PETER: Good point, yeah.

ED: And so I think, today, it looks pretty thin gruel compared to that, right?

PETER: You know, Ed, why somebody would go to an inauguration now is to be in the audience and be playing a bit part in this massive performance for the rest of the cosmos. Come on, how pathetic is that?

ED: Yeah, because nothing’s happening. You’re just listening. Oh, entertain me. Instead, this is we’re laying the foundation for the next election.

BRIAN: Well, guys, I’m going to concede a partial victory on your part. I acknowledge that during the heyday of television when people just sat back on their couches and watched, there was a bit of a disconnect between the President and his audience. But, you know, maybe taking a page out of your century, as much as I hate to concede this, media like Twitter are really allowing for a much more active engagement, not only in talking back to the President, but talking to each other. Will you give me that?

PETER: Yeah, we’ll give it to you. Except, I think what we don’t know, Brian, and where this potential loss is in what you might call the geography of the new media, that is the nature of community, how what we hear and see resonates within our little communities, our echo chambers sometimes they’re described as, and how much are we performing to each other for each other in shared space.

ED: Peter, you know how much I hate to agree with Brian. But another point there is that the people who were gathering in these sports clubs of the 19th century, figuratively, were all white men.

BRIAN: They were. That’s true.

ED: And so now you’ve got a chance, actually, to democratize the conversation. So maybe there is such a thing as progress.

PETER: It’s time for another short break. When we come back, a fiercely disputed election leads to fears of rival inaugurations, rival presidents, and just maybe a nation split in two.

ED: You’re listening to BackStory. Stay tuned.

PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf, your 18th century guy.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers, your 19th century guy.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh, your 20th century guy. Today on the show, we’re looking at some of the more high stakes moments in presidential inauguration history.

PETER: As we do each week, we’ve been fielding your comments and questions on as well as on Facebook. One of those questions came from Sam, a history teacher in Richmond, Virginia. And we have Sam on the line with us now. Welcome to the show.

SAM: Hey, thanks for having me on. I’m a long time fan.

PETER: Oh, wonderful. Great to have you here. What do you have for us?

SAM: Well, I’m [INAUDIBLE]. A lot of presidents have used their inaugurations to sort of show their own take on political style, on political philosophy. You know, Jefferson walked instead of taking a carriage and Jackson had a gigantic party on the White House lawn, traumatized polite Washington society. Have other presidents used the occasion the same way?

PETER: Well, we’re going to plumb the depths here and come up with something. And the question is the performance at inauguration, what presidents do to make an impression, particularly in the media age. Now, Sam, you began with a couple of 19th century relics who figure prominently in history books, that’s Jefferson and Jackson. I think we’re going to get more exciting stuff in the later centuries. How about it, guys?

ED: You know, I’m going to be territorial, Peter.

PETER: All right.

ED: I don’t know what could be more exciting than Andrew Jackson’s inauguration in 1829.

PETER: Yeah, I guess that was pretty exciting, Ed.

ED: Well, you know, the whole election had been exciting. Here you’ve got this military chieftain, this tall, rawboned, Tennessean slave holder soldier elected by the Democratic Party that’s mobilizing everybody they can get to stumble to the polls.

BRIAN: As long as they were a man.

ED: Yeah, exactly, exactly. And people were so enamored of the idea of Andrew Jackson is a man of the people that 20,000 of them followed him back to the White House after his inaugural speech. And the people inside the White House were freaking out because it’s like, oh, we weren’t expecting 20,000 people.

And they start flooding into the people’s mansion. And they actually bring big bowls of punch outside to keep people from coming into the White House. But it’s too late. They come in. They’re standing on the chairs with their muddy boots. And big vats of orange punch are spilled on the White House carpets.

PETER: Well, in a way, that was the people’s performance. And that was a symbolically significant moment.

ED: Yeah, he didn’t want it, by the way. Sam had asked about if the presidents sort of shape these in their own image. Jackson was so miserable that he crawled out of a window and went and got a steak at a nearby restaurant. I kid you not. Now, Sam, did you say that you’re a history teacher?

SAM: Yes, I am.

ED: So you must have up your sleeve some good inaugural stories. And under the guise of actually stealing them from you, why don’t we ask you to tell us one that you would have used as an answer to this good question.

SAM: My other favorite one that’s more portentous than fun has to be Andrew Johnson getting his swearing in as the vice president while pretty much blind drunk.

ED: Yeah, you know–

BRIAN: Go ahead, defend him, Ed. Go ahead. Defend that Tennessee boy.

PETER: Well, he’s from Tennessee, you understand.

ED: It’s not just from Tennessee. I went to Andrew Johnson Elementary School. There’s only two in the country as far as I know and one’s in his home town and the other is 35 miles away from where I’m from. And I think he got a bum rap. I think he was ill. I think that he– you know, I don’t know. I’ll just let it go.

SAM: He maybe got a bum rap. It makes a good story though.

ED: It does. Let’s put it this way. Any way you look at it, he presented himself in a profoundly unflattering light that I do think undermined his own credibility later on. He was a brave man. And people, we forget, really admired him.

But on March 3rd of 1864, he attended a party in his honor and he drank a lot. And was hung over the next morning. So he actually asked the current vice president for some whiskey, the hair of the dog. And this current vice president– this is so hard to imagine today, isn’t it? He gives him a bottle.

And Johnson’s takes two stiff drinks and he says, I need all the strength for the occasion I can have. Then he goes into the Senate chamber and gives a rambling speech. Lincoln is sitting there. Congress is sitting there for the inauguration.

And he makes no sense whatsoever. And he actually just comes to a halt. He just quits. And then Lincoln gives his famous second inaugural address. It’s the same day, the same event. And Lincoln is watching this, watching his new vice president fail so abjectly and then has to stand up and give what’s considered to be the greatest inaugural address in American history.

PETER: Well, Sam, this has been a wonderful call. And thank you for inaugurating a great discussion.

SAM: Well, thank you guys. It’s been a real thrill.

BRIAN: Thanks a lot, Sam.

ED: Thanks, Sam.


PETER: We’re going to turn now to one of the more nerve racking inauguration weekends in US history. This was the weekend of March 4, 1877 and, well–

GEORGE DOWNS: It was not clear if there was going to be one president, two presidents, no presidents.

ED: This is Greg Downs, an historian at City College, New York. He says that just three days before the inauguration, the country still wasn’t sure who would be taking the oath. Both Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican candidate, and Samuel Tilden, the Democrat, could plausibly claim to have won the election. Rumor had it that Tilden might march on the capital with a paramilitary force. So the outgoing President, Ulysses Grant, reopened civil war forts just in case.

GEORGE DOWNS: He calls in forces from St. Louis to man the bridges into Washington DC, a city defined, as you know, by rivers.

PETER: Rutherford Hayes, meanwhile, was in Ohio preparing to travel to the capital.

GEORGE DOWNS: And so all of these wild rumors are circulating when Hayes gets on the train on March the first. And he gets many letters telling him you’re going to get killed on the way.

ED: It had been four whole months since the election, an election that everybody expected Tilden to win. So let’s pause here and see how what was supposed to be a straightforward transition got so wildly off track.

PETER: Back in November Tilden had won the popular vote. His stronghold was the South and that made sense since there were so many Democrats in the former Confederacy. But he also took some Northern states like his home state of New York. The Republicans were generally stronger in the North but they had outposts in the South, particularly among freed people. Memories of the Civil War were fresh and they were painful.

GEORGE DOWNS: Northerners are running what they come to call the bloody shirt, voters you shot, and to make it a patriotic duty to vote Republican and to associate the Democratic Party with treason.

PETER: One popular Republican slogan was not every Democrat was a rebel, but every rebel was a Democrat.

ED: But as the returns came in on election night, Hayes supporters noticed something odd. The vote was really close in Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina. Tilden appeared to be ahead. But the margins were thin enough that Hayes might be able to eek out a victory in the electoral college if some of the votes were thrown out.

PETER: So the Republican machine sprang into action. They argued that early returns weren’t reliable because Democrats had committed widespread fraud and intimidated black voters.

GEORGE DOWNS: And they start making contact with these governors in the South and figuring out how do you determine which votes count and which votes don’t count? And in each of them, they reach out to these Republican governors in these fragile and violent southern states and they send down observers and they encourage them– in some cases, perhaps, with the kind of encouragement that comes in green, rectangular form– to throw out enough votes from precincts where there clearly was violence and fraud but to throw out conveniently enough votes to make Hayes the winner.

ED: Suddenly, it looked as if Hayes might have won the election. And this ushered in a tussle between the two houses of Congress. The Senate, controlled by Republicans, was more than happy to declare Hayes the winner. But the house, controlled by the Democrats, said not so fast, under the Constitution we have the right to decide an undecided election.

PETER: So Americans started to worry. What if the house says Tilden’s the president and the Senate says Hayes is? Tilden figured his victory was being stolen away and he geared up for a fight.

GEORGE DOWNS: He writes up a speech for the new governor of New York to deliver that says that any effort to deny a constitutionally elected president the White House will be treated as a revolution and met with force.

ED: Wow.

GEORGE DOWNS: Then he asked the governor to appoint a new head of the state militia in George McClellan. And McClellan had kept a surreptitious but active correspondence with other Democrats during the election and after that seemed to indicate that he’s thinking about, or at least investigating, how he would build up an Army in support of Tilden.

ED: Because he’d been dreaming of such a thing throughout the Civil War.

GEORGE DOWNS: That’s right. And he would ride in on a white horse.

ED: Exactly. But before our listeners write us and say, that George McClellan. Let me just go ahead and say, yes, the same George McClellan who’d run for president under the Democratic banner in 1864 and who had, as you just said, Greg, dreamed of some way of sort of saving the Union from the tyrant of Lincoln. And so now his chance, 12 years later, is sort of representing itself. I can’t wait to hear how this turns out. Then what happens?

GEORGE DOWNS: So he’s writing. We only have little bits and pieces of this correspondence. And some of it what we get is we get from people who are writing back to him saying, I can’t believe what you just wrote to me. And you think as a historian, what did he just write to him? But you can see him talking strategies, talking tactics.

ED: But just before the governor was to name McClellan to lead New York’s militia, a friend of Tilden’s named John Bigelow rushed after him. Bigelow said, please, don’t do this yet.

GEORGE DOWNS: And the governor says why? And Bigelow says because that’ll be the end of the country, that what you want to do is you want to wait until it’s time to fight and then name a fighter. But if you name a fighter now, we’re not going to be able to put it back in the box. And that night Bigelow writes in his diary this sort of pain as he contemplates that by the next July 4, there may be no presidency, there may be no country again.

Many people, knowing bits and pieces and the way that things feed through gossip, think that Tilden is going to step out of his mansion in New York City, call out the militias along the coast, seize the customs house– the customs house is the primary generator of revenue for the federal government– and the bank. And he’s going to establish himself as a separate government in New York City, this old vision, this vision that had been floated in the Civil War by the mayor of New York, of New York as the capital of a sort of disappeared republic, and that he might be able to muster enough people to chase Hayes out to the Midwest and this sort of Civil War instead of north, south, one between east and west.

PETER: As best we can gather today, Tilden never intended to declare himself president in New York.

GEORGE DOWNS: He would go much farther than that, which is to say he would march into Washington DC and stage a counter inauguration in DC. And if he was captured by the Army and executed as a traitor by court martial, he understood that that’s what it could lead to.

ED: But, and this is crucial, he would only take that drastic step if the house was willing to stand behind them. And at this point, the house got cold feet, fearing violence. The president of the Senate didn’t want to touch the issue either. So Congress figured out a way to, basically, hand the problem off.

GEORGE DOWNS: And so just like now we create a super commission to resolve the debt, whenever there’s some problem that Congress can’t get its mind around politically, they assign it to the sort of old wise heads. Well, they do that.

ED: And it worked out back then unlike in our time, huh?

GEORGE DOWNS: Unlike now, right?

PETER: That super committee started to deliberate in late January. By the beginning of March there is still no official decision, which brings us back to where we started. Hayes was on that train to DC. Rumors were flying. And the election was still in doubt.

ED: Finally, after a couple of days of foot dragging by Democrats, Congress rubber stamped the commission’s decision. The election was decided. Hayes had 185 electoral votes, Tilden, 184. About six hours later, Hayes’s train rolled into DC and the long saga was over.

PETER: That Sunday, Hayes was sworn in. On Monday, he delivered his inaugural address to a peaceful crowd of onlookers. Here’s what he said at the end.

RUTHERFORD HAYES: It has been reserved for a government of the people, where the right of suffrage is universal, to give to the world the first example in history of a great nation hushing its party tumults to yield the issue of the contest to adjustment according to the forms of law.

ED: So, Peter, that’s some convoluted 19th century language. You want to give us a translation? What’s Hayes doing here?

PETER: Well, this is this moment– call it a locker room moment– when Hayes is telling the Americans, hey, team, we’re OK. Everything’s going to be all right. This is his opportunity to reaffirm the founding myth, this is a great country, a government of the people. So even when the people manifestly fail to reach a solution through their parties, even when the Constitution, that beautiful machine which is supposed to guarantee democratic outcomes, manifestly fails, well, we got to tell ourselves that we have triumphed. We have made it through this rough passage.

BRIAN: Peter, this is like the babysitter knowing the parents are coming back. Let’s put the living room back together.

PETER: That’s a nice image, Brian. The Union has been preserved. Democracy has redeemed itself yet again. And the Constitution, this beautiful machine, has come to a final decision. Of course, a literary critic would say, well, that’s just the opposite of what happened, wouldn’t they, Ed?

ED: They would because it’s hard to find a victory in this for the story of democracy. Two reasons. One, really, what kind of deals were cut that would allow this to work out? All the way from the courthouses down in Louisiana and Florida and South Carolina up to the people supposedly counting the votes to what the senators and congressmen are doing, what kind of lobbyists are involved? So there’s that. Just the form of democracy itself seems to be compromised.

But then there’s also what happened. He’s talking about universal suffrage. And what he means there is that the fruit of the Civil War and of the 15th amendment, recent history that African Americans can vote. And as a result of this election and what makes people cynical about this is that Hayes removes the troops from those courthouses in those three states where reconstruction had still been in place and African Americans, basically, are on their own for the next 100 years, that they would never have the power of the federal government until the civil rights struggle coming back in to protect the rights of African Americans.

PETER: And democracy shrinks as result, the number of people who are really counted as Americans.

ED: Peter, you apparently have not listened to Rutherford B. Hayes’s inaugural speech because what he is saying is that this is the triumph of democracy. But, lest I be cynical, let me recall that as much pain and betrayal of democracy as this brought, at least it was not a renewal of the Civil War. It was not blood in the streets. There were not coup d’etat. So by that standard, which I think by the standard of world history is a meaningful one, this isn’t the worst outcome you could have had for the nation as a whole, though it’s hard to imagine a much worse outcome for African Americans.

BRIAN: hosts, it seems to me that on all of these inaugurations we’ve really alluded to the fact that they provide a window into just what’s going on during these difficult times. But what we haven’t asked ourselves is how much of the landscape can we see through that window? What we don’t hear and we don’t see through this particular window, especially through the flowery rhetoric of Hayes, is what is going to happen to the suffrage of African Americans.

ED: You know, and it’s important to say– and I really feel passionate about this– that African Americans, just because they were abandoned by the white Republicans, did not quit trying to vote. For the next 20 years they did everything they could to maintain the suffrage that had been so dearly bought. So, Brian, your metaphor about the window is exactly right. It lets us look down Pennsylvania Avenue. But you can’t see all of America from there.

BRIAN: Well, guys, that’s all the time we have for today. But the hour never ends online. Pay us a visit at for more about the history of inaugurations. You’ll find all of our past shows there as well as descriptions of the shows we have in the works.


PETER: We’ll be back next week with a show about the history of gun ownership in America. In the meantime, don’t be a stranger.

ED: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Jess Engebretson, Eric Mennel, and Chioke I’Anson. Allen Chen is our intern.

PETER: Our senior producer is Tony Field. Jamal Milner is our technical director. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.

BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, the W.L. Lyons Brown Junior Charitable Foundation, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel. History, made every day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh are professors in the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.