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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Notably Absent: Presidential No-Shows on Inauguration Day

Since 1789, the Inauguration of a president has marked the beginning of a new chapter in American history. As historian Paul F. Boller has written, a presidential Inauguration demonstrates “the peaceful transfer of power from one president to another, regardless of political views and party affiliations” and serves as “an occasion to celebrate the basic values that unite the American people.”1 But what happens when an outgoing president decides not to participate in the transfer of power from one administration to the next? And how often have presidents, for one reason or another, missed the Inaugurations of their successors?

As it turns out, presidential absences on Inauguration Day have been more frequent than might be expected. Five outgoing presidents – John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, Andrew Johnson, and Donald Trump – failed to attend the Inaugurations of their successors, while two more presidents – Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon – did not participate for other reasons. More than three dozen presidential transitions have taken place since the founding of the republic, which makes notable these seven instances of absent incumbents. Taken together, they reveal how inaugural no-shows are in fact a recurring feature of American politics.

Drawing of the U.S. Capitol presented to President Thomas Jefferson by Benjamin Henry Latrobe “Surveyor of the Public Buildings” of the United States. Jefferson and Latrobe were responsible for the projected design extending the Capitol’s portico and adding a new staircase.

Library of Congress

In 1796, George Washington announced that he would not seek another term as president after serving two terms. The election to name his successor pitted Federalist John Adams, his vice president, against Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson, secretary of state during President Washington’s first term. In a sectional split, Adams won by a margin of 71 to 68 electoral votes. Under the terms of the Constitution, Jefferson became vice president. Hopes for cooperation between the two men and their respective factions quickly deteriorated, setting the stage for a rematch in 1800.2

The election of 1800 was one of the most acrimonious in the nation's history. Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican allies attacked Adams as a monarchist, while the Federalists issued dire warnings about the fate of the nation under a Jefferson administration. The voting process itself was equally fraught. Before the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment in 1804, which regularized the selection process, electors voted not for a single ticket but cast two votes for different individuals. The individual who received the most votes was elected to the presidency, and the vice presidency went to the person with the second most votes. At the meeting of the Electoral College in 1800, a tie resulted between Jefferson and fellow Democratic-Republican Aaron Burr, which threw the election to the House of Representatives.3 While Adams knew he had lost the election, his relationship with Jefferson remained cordial enough, with the pair dining amicably at the White House in January.4

The House soon deadlocked in its voting, leading to threats of violence from militia groups. Jefferson later recollected that he had beseeched Adams in early February to intercede in the vote. However, Adams refused, arguing that Jefferson only needed to assuage the public creditors, vow to maintain the navy, and not disturb those holding public office. Jefferson refused to accept those positions or make those statements out of principle.5 After more than thirty ballots, the House finally decided the race for Jefferson. Adams chose not to stay for his successor’s Inauguration, departing the nation’s capital by stagecoach at 4:00 am on March 4, 1801. Adams may have been motivated by a desire to cool the political temperature in the capital. Perhaps, too, the extensive travel time to Massachusetts required an early morning departure. Although arrangements had been made for George Washington to attend Adams’s Inauguration, it does not appear that Adams was invited to follow suit.6 Regardless, the resulting peaceful transfer of power from Adams to Jefferson was called the “Revolution of 1800.” Jefferson walked to the Capitol, where he delivered a conciliatory Inaugural Address before returning to his boarding house. This democratic gesture was later emulated by a number of presidents, as they walked alongside citizens back to the White House.7

Crowds gather at the White House for the President’s Levee on Inauguration Day, March 4, 1829. Andrew Jackson was nearly crushed to death by the mob.

Library of Congress

The Inauguration of Andrew Jackson in 1829 caused a seismic shift in the politics of Washington. But like Jefferson before him, Jackson faced an initial setback during the election of 1824, when he ran for president in a crowded field that included John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, William Crawford, and John C. Calhoun. Jackson received the most popular and electoral votes overall, but he failed to obtain a majority of either. With the election at stake, the Clay electors switched their support to John Quincy Adams, and the House of Representatives voted to make Adams the next president. Later, Jackson declared a “corrupt bargain” had taken place and vowed to run again in 1828. Four years later, Jackson ousted the incumbent Adams in a decisive popular and electoral victory.8

Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts anticipated that Jackson’s arrival in the capital would “bring a breeze” to Washington.9 Subsequent events soon bore out his prediction. Breaking with precedent, Jackson refused to make the customary call on Adams at the White House in early February. The estrangement was not altogether expected, as Jackson had previously shaken Adams’s hand at his Inauguration in 1825. But the campaign of 1828 had left lasting scars. Jackson especially blamed his political enemies for the death of his wife Rachel Robards Jackson in December 1828. Nevertheless, Adams offered to vacate the White House early, but Jackson declined the proposal. At this point, Adams apparently decided to boycott Jackson’s Inauguration, and correspondence came to a standstill between the two men. Accordingly, Tench Ringgold, the U.S. Marshal for Washington, D.C., handled the details of the Inauguration.10

On the evening of March 3, 1829, John Quincy Adams departed the White House and headed to a rented house owned by Commodore David Porter in Meridian Hill. A seat reserved for the outgoing president remained vacant during the subsequent ceremony. The next day, Adams was riding a horse when the sound of cannon being fired alerted him to Jackson’s Inauguration. Following Jefferson’s 1801 example, Jackson walked from John Gadsby’s National Hotel to the Capitol on Inauguration Day. Jackson’s first inauguration also established the tradition of holding the ceremony on the East Portico of the Capitol. Large crowds estimated between 12,000 and 20,000 greeted the new president on his return to the White House. Soon the Executive Mansion was filled to capacity, yielding a chaotic scene in which the new president was nearly crushed to death. Only the allure of tubs of alcoholic orange punch placed on the South Lawn drew the crowds from the building.11

Presidential inauguration of William Henry Harrison on the East Portico of the Capitol, March 4, 1841. Outgoing president Martin Van Buren did not attend the ceremony, though Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson was present.

Library of Congress

The Jacksonians controlled the White House until 1840, when William Henry Harrison, the first Whig candidate, was elected president. Once more, the capital braced for a major transition between political parties. In comparison to 1829, events proceeded far more smoothly. On February 11, President-elect Harrison called on outgoing President Martin Van Buren. The next day, Van Buren hosted Harrison and others of his party staying at the National Hotel for dinner at the White House.12 Van Buren supposedly remarked that he thought Harrison “was as tickled with the presidency as a woman with a new bonnet.”13 As the National Hotel filled to capacity, Van Buren offered to vacate the White House early, but Harrison politely refused, favoring a brief trip to his native Virginia.

However, the warm personal relations between Harrison and Van Buren were insufficient to patch over the partisan divisions. On March 2, just two days before Harrison’s Inauguration, a Whig-controlled Senate Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies belatedly informed Van Buren: “No position it will be perceived has been assigned to you.”14 With no consigned part in the proceedings, Van Buren apparently decided not to attend, perhaps further impelled by a serious illness afflicting his son, Martin Van Buren, Jr. At noon on March 3, 1841, Van Buren vacated the White House and relocated to the home of Attorney General Henry Gilpin. On the morning of Harrison’s Inauguration, Van Buren likely went to the Capitol to sign last-minute legislation, but he did not remain for the ceremony.15 Later that evening, members of the old cabinet gathered to say farewell to Van Buren. Former Postmaster General John M. Niles described the gathering as “a meeting of the friends of an overthrown dynasty.”16

March 4 arrived cold and blustery, but the weather did not stop an estimated crowd of 75,000 people from gathering to witness the Inauguration of a new president. William Henry Harrison rode a white charger—dismissed by John Quincy Adams as a “mean-looking white horse”—from the National Hotel to the Capitol, accompanied by bands, banners, and a procession of replica log cabins.17 Also notable was an empty carriage marked “former president” accompanying the parade. At the Capitol, outgoing Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson accompanied incoming Vice President John Tyler into the Senate chamber for his Inauguration. The Inaugural party then headed outside for Harrison’s Inauguration, where he delivered the longest Inaugural Address in American history, clocking in at one hour and forty-five minutes. One month later, Harrison was dead, possibly of pneumonia or a gastrointestinal illness, and Tyler was sworn in as president.18

President Ulysses S. Grant delivers his inaugural address, March 4, 1869. Outgoing president Andrew Johnson remained at the White House with members of his cabinet.

Library of Congress

The next inaugural quarrel took place during the transition between Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant in 1869. Initially, Grant, who remained General-in-Chief of Union forces after the Civil War, proved a loyal soldier to the Johnson administration. However, Grant soon came to question President Johnson’s political methods during the infamous “Swing Around the Circle” tour of 1866. The circumstances of Johnson’s impeachment in 1868 for violating the Tenure of Office Act also involved Grant. To replace Edwin Stanton as secretary of war, Johnson temporarily appointed Grant to fill the role, but when Congress voted to keep Stanton in the position, Grant and Johnson had a falling out over the general’s legal authority to remain in the office.19

In the election of 1868, the Republicans passed over the incumbent and nominated Grant, who won a resounding electoral and popular victory in the fall. Yet Johnson still held a grudge against Grant for his role in the events leading to his impeachment. Grant broke custom by refusing to call on Johnson. In January 1869, Gideon Welles, secretary of the navy since Abraham Lincoln’s administration, suggested that Grant “with his narrow mind and intense malignity….might not consent to a public inauguration in our presence.” Welles also cited John Quincy Adams’s example in 1829 as precedent for skipping the ceremony. Johnson mulled over the matter and determined not to attend Grant’s inauguration, calling Grant “a liar, guilty of duplicity, false to his duty, and his trust.” On February 22, Welles further encouraged Johnson to boycott the inauguration of “this ignorant, vulgar man.”20

Into early March, Johnson and his cabinet argued over the issue of attending Grant’s inauguration. Efforts to reconcile the two men appeared futile. When Grant rejected the idea of riding in the same carriage as Johnson, the congressional committee on Inauguration proposed that the two men take separate carriages, but to no avail. On the morning of March 4, 1869, Johnson’s cabinet assembled at the White House for a final time. Secretary of State William H. Seward, noting the late hour, asked, “Ought we not to start immediately?” for the Capitol. Johnson refused, stating that he was “inclined to think we would finish up our work here by ourselves.” Despite protests from Seward and others, Johnson and the cabinet remained at the White House, where the last business of the administration was carried out.21

President Woodrow Wilson and President-elect Warren G. Harding ride from the White House to the Capitol, March 4, 1921. Wilson decided that his poor mobility prevented him from attending the ceremony itself.

Library of Congress

More than fifty years passed until the next instance of an outgoing president not attending his successor’s Inauguration. The nation had elected Warren G. Harding, a Republican from Ohio, to replace the Democratic incumbent Woodrow Wilson. At first, the two men looked to put aside partisan divisions in the transition from one administration to the next. Upon hearing of the Hardings’ arrival in the capital, First Lady Edith Wilson invited Florence Harding to the White House for tea. Then, on March 3, the Hardings were both invited for tea at the White House. On the morning of Inauguration Day, President-elect Harding arrived by automobile at the White House, where Wilson joined him for the ride to the Capitol.22

Once at the Capitol, the amicability of prior days rapidly vanished. Wilson, who was limited in mobility by the effects of a stroke, was unable to climb steps, and he accordingly had announced his intention not to attend Harding’s Inauguration on the east face of the Capitol. Nevertheless, as Edith Wilson recalled, a plan was made for the two men to take the elevator into the building prior to the ceremony. But upon arrival at the Capitol, Edith Wilson remembered, “Mr. Harding alighted from the car and, smiling and waving his hat, ascended the steps, thoughtlessly leaving my husband to drive on alone.” Wilson then made his way by elevator inside the Capitol and awaited any final legislation to sign. But Edith Wilson could not overlook the perceived slight, expressing her “indignation at the performance at the Capitol.” President Wilson “laughed at my fury,” she later recalled. The Wilsons drove off to their new home on S Street, having skipped the Inauguration of their successor.23

The swearing in of President Ford by Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger in the East Room of the White House, August 9, 1974. Photograph by Robert L. Knudsen.

Gerald R. Ford Library

Another fifty years passed until the next absence of an outgoing incumbent. In 1974, the administration of President Richard Nixon was roiled by the ongoing Watergate scandal. On August 8, at a meeting in the Oval Office, Nixon told Vice President Gerald R. Ford: “I have made the decision to resign.” Ford later reflected that the moment had been as if a “strange calm in the eye of the hurricane” had momentarily descended upon the political chaos surrounding them. The next day, August 9, Nixon and Ford shared an amicable good-bye in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, after which they walked together to the South Lawn. The Fords then watched as the Nixons flew off in Marine One.24

With Nixon gone from the scene, Ford prepared to be sworn in. Chief Justice Warren Burger administered the Oath of Office to President Ford in the East Room of the White House before a crowd of 200 people. Ford’s brief remarks included a plea for unity: “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works. Our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.” Ford’s taking of the Oath of Office was technically a presidential succession rather than a presidential transition, but Nixon was nevertheless absent from his successor’s Swearing-in Ceremony.25

President Donald Trump announced on Twitter that he would not attend President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, 2021. However, Vice President Mike Pence did attend.

Official White House Photo by David Lienemann

The election of 2020 once more produced a rocky transition between the outgoing administration of Donald J. Trump and the incoming administration of Joseph R. Biden. Major news outlets projected Biden as the winner, but President Trump refused to concede the race. In the subsequent days and weeks, individual states finished counting ballots, certified their results, and carried out recounts as required by state law. These actions consistently affirmed that Biden had won the election. In late November, the General Service Administration released the federal funds earmarked for the incoming administration, even as the Trump administration challenged the election’s results in courts and in numerous public fora.26

On December 12, 2020, the Electoral College met and voted by a total of 306 to 232 to elect Biden, thus certifying the election. On January 6, 2021, a joint meeting of Congress convened to count the certified votes. Nevertheless, President Trump called for a rally on that day, where on a stage constructed on the Ellipse just south of the White House, he encouraged attendees to march to the Capitol and “fight like hell.” Despite the disruption of thousands of protestors and rioters, necessitating a recess of Congress and causing violence against members of the Capitol Police, and an unprecedented number of objections to the Electoral College votes by members of Congress, it was determined that Joe Biden had won the election in the early morning hours of January 7.27

President Trump still refused to concede the election, though he at last committed to the transfer of power to the incoming administration. Speculation had previously run rampant whether Trump would break with tradition and not attend Biden’s Inauguration, and on January 8, he tweeted: “I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.” In response, Biden called Trump’s nonappearance “a good thing,” though he welcomed Vice President Mike Pence to participate who ultimately did so. For his part, President Trump left the White House on Marine One shortly after 8:15 am, after which he took Air Force One to Palm Beach, Florida, and then went by motorcade to Mar-a-Lago, his post-presidency home. President Biden’s Inaugural Address stressed unity, while the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic necessitated a far more subdued procession and a virtual parade.28

What unites these episodes of presidential absences? Two necessary conditions set the stage for the events that followed. First, they took place during periods of time when goodwill was scarce. The mutual antagonism between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson spiraled into an unbridgeable gulf. Likewise, the falling out between Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant, stemming from a combination of political and personal factors, led to an irreparable rift between the two men. The adversarial relationship between Donald Trump and Joe Biden fits within this pattern as well, as they neither met nor communicated directly with one another during the transition period. Second, most of these absences came after bitterly contested elections fueled by highly partisan media and a divided citizenry. Whether between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, Whigs and Democrats, or Republicans and Democrats, the two-party system has often begotten discord in presidential contests. Such was the case with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren and William Henry Harrison, and Donald Trump and Joe Biden.29

Presidential Inaugurations have historically been built on traditions and rituals, including the practice of outgoing presidents attending the swearing-in of their successors. Ultimately, these incidences of presidential nonattendance have depended on the decision-making calculus of the outgoing president. If there is a silver lining in the history of presidential no-shows, however, it may be that the incoming administration has generally gone on to achieve political success. Such was the case for Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Ulysses S. Grant, who each were reelected to a second term. While the symbolic meaning of Inauguration Day may be weakened by these absences, the functioning of the American political system itself has ultimately not been impaired. In the end, regardless of who attends the Inauguration, the incoming administration must try to execute its priorities and serve the American people.

Thomas Balcerski is a scholar of early American history. He holds a B.A. from Cornell University, an M.A. from SUNY Stony Brook, and a Ph.D. from Cornell University. He is author of Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King (Oxford University Press, 2019).