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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

The Origins of the March 4 Inauguration

Today, Inauguration Day falls on an exact day and time—January 20 at noon. Every four years, either the president or the president-elect takes the Oath of Office. Since 1981, presidents have typically taken the Oath on the West Front of the United States Capitol Building.1 This public ritual demonstrates America’s commitment to democracy and signifies a peaceful transfer of power to citizens and people around the world. However, prior to ratification of the Twentieth Amendment in 1933, most Inaugurations took place on March 4 at noon. Contrary to popular belief, this language does not appear in the original text of the United States Constitution, which begs the question—how did the March 4 Inauguration date come to be?

To answer this question, one can look to the last Congress convened under the Articles of Confederation. On September 12, 1788, this legislative body voted to approve the following resolution: “… the first Wednesday in March next be the time and the present seat of Congress the place for commencing proceedings under the said constitution.”2

The first Wednesday in March 1789 just happened to be March 4. This resolution established that this date would mark the start of the new federal government under the ratified Constitution. Despite this resolution, President George Washington’s Inauguration did not take place until April 30, 1789. Although government operations were set to start on March 4, logistical delays made this impossible. On that date, the House of Representatives and the Senate attempted to convene for the first time. However, both legislative bodies failed to reach a quorum, the minimum number of members required to conduct official business. The first few months of 1789 were particularly cold and snowy, delaying many members of Congress traveling to New York City, the temporary seat of government.3

President George Washington delivers his Inaugural Address on April 30, 1789 in the Federal Hall Senate Chamber in New York City.

Library of Congress

According to the Constitution: “The President of the Senate shall, in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the Certificates, and the Votes shall then be counted”.4 This meant that until a quorum could be established to count the electoral votes, the winner of the presidency and vice presidency could not be determined or certified. Eventually, on April 6, 1789, enough members of Congress gathered to constitute a quorum. Once the electoral votes were counted, George Washington won the presidency unanimously with sixty-nine electoral votes. Word of his victory reached Washington, and he made the journey to New York City from his Virginia plantation, Mount Vernon. Along the way, Washington was greeted with celebrations, dinners, and parades. He recorded his reception in New York City in his diary on April 23:

“The display of boats which attended and joined us on this occasion, some with instrumental music on board; the decorations of the ships, the roar of cannon, and loud acclamations of the people which rend the skies, as I passed along the wharves, filled my mind with sensations as painful (considering the reverse of this scene, which may be the case after all my labors to do good) as they are pleasing.”5

President Washington was finally inaugurated on April 30, 1789.6 Washington arrived at the Federal Hall Senate Chamber at 1:00 pm. At 2:00 pm, Washington was escorted to a balcony outside the chamber decorated with red and white curtains to take the Oath of Office as a crowd gathered below. Chancellor of New York Robert Livingston administered the Oath while Secretary of the Senate Samuel Otis held the ceremonial bible. Following the Oath, Washington returned to the Senate Chamber where he delivered his Inaugural Address.7 Many elements of Washington’s first Inauguration still persist today, including taking the Oath before a public audience, swearing on a ceremonial bible, and delivering an Inaugural Address.

After Washington’s first Inauguration, Congress then set the official Inauguration Day. On March 1, 1792, Congress passed legislation that established Inauguration on March 4: “And be it further enacted, That the term of four years for President and Vice President shall be elected shall in all cases commence on the fourth day of March next succeeding the day on which the votes of the electors shall be given.”8 This legislation did not specify the time of the Inauguration. However, notes from George Washington’s Cabinet meeting on February 28, 1793, include the following about his upcoming second Inauguration: “Monday, 12 o’clock, is presumed to be the best time. But as the mode will be considered by the public, as originating with the President, it is submitted to him for his decision.”9

President Woodrow Wilson delivers the Inaugural Address at his second Inauguration on March 5, 1917. Wilson previously took the Oath of Office on Sunday, March 4, 1817 and repeated it the following day for the public ceremony.

Library of Congress

From this point forward, Inaugurations were typically held on March 4 at noon. On March 2, 1801, Thomas Jefferson confirmed this precedent with a letter sent to the Senate president pro tempore James Hillhouse: “I beg leave through you to inform the honorable the Senate of the US. That I propose to take the oath which the Constitution prescribes to the President of the US. before he enters on the execution of his office, on Wednesday the 4th. inst. At twelve aclock in the Senate Chamber.”10 The March 4 Inauguration date was further codified with the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment on June 15, 1804. The Twelfth Amendment modified the way in which the Electoral College chooses the president and vice president, allowing these positions to be elected together. Previously, the candidate that won the most electoral votes became president while the runner up became vice president meaning that they were from different political parties. It also mentioned March 4:

“And if the House of Representatives shall not choose a President whenever the right of choice shall devolve upon them, before the fourth day of March next following, the Vice President shall act as President, as in case of the death or other constitutional disability of the President.”11

This amendment became the only direct mention of March 4 in the Constitution and the majority of presidents prior to 1933 were inaugurated on this date. There were exceptions in 1821, 1849, 1877, and 1917, as March 4 fell on a Sunday during those years. These ceremonies were held the following day, Monday, March 5. Some presidents were sworn in privately at the traditional time of noon on March 4. However, this was not always the case. In 1821, President James Monroe was inaugurated publicly on March 5, without taking the Oath of Office on March 4 at noon. In this instance, Monroe was already president and there was no transfer of power between leaders. This was also the case in 1917, as Woodrow Wilson was already president—however President Wilson decided to take the Oath of Office on Sunday at the Capitol and again on March 5 for the public Inauguration.12

In 1849, President Zachary Taylor also did not take the Oath of Office before the Inauguration celebrations on Monday, March 5. In this case, there were questions about who served as president during Sunday, March 4. According to his diary, President James K. Polk concluded his last piece of business as president at 6:30 am on March 4, 1849 and had vacated the White House to stay at the Irving Hotel the evening before.13 However, a Missouri plaque for a statue of Congressman David Rice Atchison includes the phrase “President of the United States One Day.” In this popular retelling, Atchinson was appointed Senate president pro tempore after Vice President George M. Dallas took leave of the Senate on March 2, 1849. This created a scenario where according to the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, the Senate president pro tempore followed the Vice President in the line of succession, making Atchinson acting president when Taylor did not take the Oath of Office on March 4. Despite the confusion, Atchinson did not consider himself president that day. Because his term in Congress and as president pro tempore ended on March 4 at noon, he was no longer in a position to ascend to the presidency, even if by accident. Additionally, because Polk’s term ended at noon, this indicated that Taylor was “for all intents and purposes” president since he could have taken the oath at any time after noon.14

The question arose once again in 1877. Following a highly contentious and controversial election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden, Congress created an electoral commission to determine the winner. Hayes was declared the victor on March 2, 1877, just two days before Inauguration Day. President Ulysses S. Grant and Secretary of State Hamilton Fish urged Hayes to take the Oath of Office early, so on the evening of March 3 Supreme Court Justice Morrison Waite administered the Oath in the Red Room of the White House. Law and precedent for a March 4 Inauguration at noon suggests that Grant’s term would have officially ended four years from the time when he took the Oath of Office in 1873. Newspapers indicate that Grant was inaugurated for the second time on March 4, 1873 at noon, meaning that his term of office ended four years later on March 4, 1877 at noon. This meant Hayes was considered president at noon on March 4, although newspapers did not report on his March 3 swearing in until the morning of March 5.15 Click here to learn more about the Election of 1876.

President Barack Obama takes his Oath of Office, administered by Chief Justice John Roberts, privately with his family on January 20, 2013 in the Blue Room of the White House.

This issue was finally resolved with the ratification of the Twentieth Amendment—however there have been times when January 20 fell on a Sunday. Inauguration Day in 1957, 1985, and 2013 all fell on Sunday, but in every instance the incumbent stayed in office (Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama). All three took the Oath of Office in various places inside the White House—Eisenhower in the East Room, Reagan in the Entrance Hall, and Obama in the Blue Room. All three took their oaths on Sunday, and then took the Oath of Office again publicly on Monday, January 21.16

The Twentieth Amendment, also known as the “lame duck” amendment, was proposed and authored by progressive Nebraska Senator George Norris in 1922. While communications and travel during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were more difficult, necessitating a nearly four-month gap between winning election and taking the Oath of Office, by the twentieth century much had improved in terms of travel and technology, allowing for an earlier Inauguration date. Norris also sought to tackle a larger problem. Previously, a president that lost reelection could govern during the lengthy lame duck session without having to be responsible to voters. Shortening this lame duck period was meant to strengthen democracy and avoid a future Constitutional crisis.17 After introducing this legislation five times, Norris was finally successful on his sixth try in March 1932. The Amendment passed Congress and was ratified by the States in January 1933. Today, presidents serve a four-year term, beginning on January 20 at noon, and ending four years from that date and time exactly.18

Thank you to Dr. Thomas J. Balcerski, Associate Professor of History at Eastern Connecticut State University, for his contributions to this article.