History of Presidential Inaugurations: Why on January 20?


In 1933 it seemed that a four-month transition between an outgoing “lame-duck” president who was voted out in November and a new administration starting in March was too long.

Indeed, during the winter of 1932-1933, there was a horrific battle between the incumbent Herbert Hoover and president-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, that complicated FDR’s ability to deal with the failed economy resulting from the Great Depression.

The 20th Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in 1933 to move the Presidential inauguration (and its corresponding end date of term service) from March 4 to noon on January 20. The amendment also made provisions should a President die during his term, resign, or be removed from office. As we saw in my previous article, presidential transitions were not always smooth.

President-ElectHowever, it was not until the Presidential Transition Act of 1963 that all the current processes to effect a peaceful transition of power were put in place. This includes providing candidates who have been nominated by the major parties being given classified national security briefings, transition services, facilities, and equipment.

The new compressed 11-week timetable made every moment count. And as we saw with my previous article on the History of Presidential Transitions if things get complicated, that amount of time can seem tight.

Tomorrow we will observe the 59th Presidential Inauguration. In my previous article from a dozen years ago on the History of Inauguration Day, I discussed how Social Media played a large part in the Obama inauguration. This drove exponential growth in information generated at that time. Today, we get most of our news via Social Media, and not as much from newspapers, radio, and TV.


Today the U.S. Capitol is the site for the Inauguration and swearing-in ceremony. It’s been used on 55 occasions, but there are over a dozen other places where the President was sworn into office.

Novel Presidential Inaugurations

Here are some factoids to impress your friends and family with during the Inauguration from American history:

  • The first inauguration took place on April 30, 1789, when George Washington took the oath of office on the balcony of the Federal Hall in New York City. He kissed the Bible and enjoyed fireworks at the end of the day’s celebration, paid for by private citizens. The inaugural ball was not held until the following month, and his wife Martha did not make the trip to NYC to attend.
  • The first inauguration at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., was for the third president Thomas Jefferson who took the oath of office on March 4, 1801, in the Senate Chamber.
  • James Monroe, on March 5, 1817, was the first to be sworn in wearing long trousers. All his predecessors wore colonial-era breeches and stockings.
  • March 4, 1837, was the first time both the outgoing President Jackson and incoming President Van Buren rode to the Capitol inauguration in a carriage together.
  • William Harrison, on March 4, 1841, gave the longest inaugural address at 10,000 words. That was longer than my history thesis.
  • James Polk‘s inauguration on March 4, 1845, was the first to be covered by telegraph.
  • James Buchanan, on March 4, 1857, was the first to have his inauguration photographed.
  • William McKinley, on March 4, 1897, was the first inauguration covered by a movie camera.
  • Theodore Roosevelt, on March 5, 1905, was the first time telephones were installed on the Capitol Grounds for an inauguration.
  • Warren G. Harding, on March 4, 1921, was the first use of loudspeakers at an inaugural.
  • Calvin Coolidge, on March 4, 1925, was the first inaugural to be broadcast nationally by radio.
  • Herbert Hoover, on March 4, 1929, was the first inaugural covered by a talking newsreel.
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt, on January 20, 1937, was the first president inaugurated on the new date stipulated by the 20th Amendment to the Constitution. The first and only President who was inaugurated for a 4th term, thereafter restricted by the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution passed in 1951.
  • Harry S. Truman, on January 20, 1949, was the first inauguration to be televised.
  • John F. Kennedy, on January 20, 1961, was the first inauguration televised in color.
  • Lyndon B. Johnson, on November 22, 1963, was the first president to be sworn in on an airplane, following the assignation of John F. Kennedy
  • Gerald R. Ford, on August 4, 1974, was the first Vice President to become President based on the 25th Amendment of the Constitution, in accordance with the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon
  • Ronald Reagan, on January 20, 1985, was the first time a television camera was placed inside the Presidential Limousine from the Capitol to the White House.
  • Bill Clinton, on January 20, 1997, was the first ceremony broadcast live on the Internet.
  • Barak Obama, on January 20, 2009, was the first inauguration covered by major Social Media Networks.


Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.

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