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Inaugural Balls

From Their Beginnings

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Three key features characterize nearly every presidential inauguration: the oath of office taken by the president at the Capitol, the inaugural parade, and the inaugural ball. Yet Article II, section 1, of the United States Constitution requires only the first mere 35-word pledge. Although no further instructions were left for subsequent events, celebration has always been an inseparable element. The military display that greeted George Washington upon his arrival in New York for the first inauguration in 1789 has evolved into more formal, more magnificent pageantry as America and the American presidency have grown.

Initially, local committees of District of Columbia citizens organized the celebrations surrounding the inauguration. As the events grew larger, more official, and more elaborate, so did the committees organizing them. A joint resolution was passed on January 28, 1881, as Washington prepared for the inauguration of President-elect James A. Garfield. The resolution of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, whose chairman was appointed by the president-elect, and authorized the War and Navy Departments to lend logistical support. A joint resolution renewing assistance from the District of Columbia and federal governments was passed every inauguration until 1953. Finally the Presidential Inaugural Ceremonies Act of August 6, 1956, made federal and D.C. government assistance permanent.1

An organization of young men called the Washington Dancing Assembly, whose purpose it was to throw parties for members of Washington society, was the first group of citizens to organize an inaugural event. To honor President James Madison and his wife, Dolley, popular members of Washington’s social scene, they planned a ball to follow the inauguration in 1809. Contemporaries reported that 400 guests attended the first inaugural ball, held on Saturday evening, March 4, 1809, at Mr. Long’s Hotel on Capitol Hill.2 The first ball was a great success, and it set a precedent. One hundred years later in 1909, Harper’s Weekly wrote, “Probably no feature of the inaugural ceremonies at Washington is of such interest to visitors as the inaugural ball.”3

Initially, the inaugural balls were held in local hotels: Long’s, site of Madison’s inaugural ball; Davis’ later called the Metropolitan Hotel; and Carusi’s, owned by members of the celebrated family orchestra. As Washington’s population grew, as travel became more convenient, and as the inauguration and the presidency rose in public importance, the demand for tickets to the inaugural ball grew as well. Spaces large enough to accommodate the crowds were at a premium, and large government buildings offered a solution for a few presidents. The first was Abraham Lincoln, whose second inaugural ball in 1865 was held in the model room of the Patent Office. Four years later Ulysses S. Grant entertained inaugural guests in the north wing of the Treasury Building. Temporary structures were also erected on Judiciary Square for the sole purpose of the inaugural ball: first for Zachary Taylor in 1849, then for James Buchanan in 1857, and for Ulysses S. Grant’s second ball in 1873. The structure for Grant was reported to be 350 by 150 feet, with an extremely plain exterior. The floor was constructed separately from the rest of the structure to prevent the shaking of the walls and roof if dancing became too lively. Despite frigid temperatures and a lack of heaters in the structure, newspaper accounts reported only the splendor. “The inaugural ball building… is nearly ready for the brilliant scene for which it was erected… the interior arrangements and decorations are superb, and excel those in any building ever erected before for like purposes.4

When the Pension Building designed by Montgomery C. Meigs was built at Judiciary Square, its vast interior courtyard and fountain, along with two levels of galleries, made it a popular venue for inaugural balls. President Grover Cleveland’s ball was the first held in the building in 1885, two years before its completion. Despite the spacious interior of the Pension Building, the demand to attend the inaugural ball was so great that neither that Great Hall nor any other single space in Washington could accommodate the crowds, and multiple balls were held throughout the city. This arrangement remains the custom today.