Today is an important anniversary. One hundred and one years ago today, on March 4, 1913, Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated as President of the United States. Eighty-one years ago today, on March 4, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated as President of the United States. One hundred and fifty-six years ago today, on March 4, 1857, James Buchanan was inaugurated as President of the United States. I could go on all day. You get the picture.
On January 20, which is now Inauguration Day, I ran an article explaining how and why Presidents now step up on January 20 and no longer on March 4, which is what it used to be. I won’t rehash that story here, but I thought I would round up a couple of inauguration facts for you to honor the day that is no longer significant.
How did March 4 turn out to be the traditional inauguration date? Why not March 1 or March 20 or March 15? Why the fourth? Strangely I never knew the answer to this question–or even thought to ask it–until recently. The Constitution technically went into effect when the ninth state, New Hampshire, ratified it on June 21, 1788, but it was not until September that Congress–then still acting under the Articles of Confederation system–certified it as such. They passed a measure calling for the timing of elections and when various pieces of the new national government would go into effect. Due to timing of when all the elections would be certified and when national figures could actually get to New York (then the seat of government), the first Wednesday in March, 1789 was specified as the day the new government would open for business. That day was March 4. George Washington, the first President, wasn’t there yet; he didn’t arrive, and wasn’t inaugurated, until April 30. But March 4 stuck as the inauguration date, and it remained that way until 1937.
A total of 32 Presidential inaugurations were held on March 4, the first one in 1793 and the last one in 1933. An additional 4 were held on March 5 because the fourth fell on a Sunday. Twenty-seven of the first 32 Presidents had at least one inauguration on March 4. There were only five who did not. Of those five, four–John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson and Chester Arthur–came to the presidency after the death of their predecessors, and did not have a proper inaugural of their own because they weren’t subsequently elected to their own terms. (Two other Presidents who succeeded to the office by means of death, Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge, were elected to terms in his own right, in 1904 and 1924 respectively, and were inaugurated on the followinf March 4). The only President who won his initial term by election and who was never inaugurated on March 4 was Rutherford B. Hayes. His inauguration occurred on March 5, 1877. March 4 was a Sunday that year and Hayes didn’t stick around to be inaugurated in 1881.
The only President to be inaugurated on both March 4 and January 20 was FDR, who was in office when the 20th Amendment took effect. Had he not been re-elected in 1936, his term would have been slightly truncated by the change, and he would have been in office from March 4, 1933 to January 20, 1937. Of course in 1936 Roosevelt was just getting started with the whole re-election thing.
Here’s the earliest known movie footage of an antique inauguration. It was McKinley’s in 1897.