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There Weren't Always Crowds Going Wild at Presidential Inaugurals


Tuesday's inauguration of President Barack Obama promises to be jam-packed and festive. But these ceremonies have not all been grand. Groundbreaking on the United States Capitol - the traditional backdrop for the ceremony - was still four years away when, in 1789, the nation's first president, George Washington, was sworn in before a modest gathering on the street below a balcony of Federal Hall in New York City. But he went inside to give his inaugural address to Congress alone. And only a roomful of people watched the swearing in of the second president, John Adams, in a Philadelphia county courthouse.

The third chief executive, Thomas Jefferson, rode a horse from his hotel to his inaugural in the new capital city of Washington in 1805. And when friends, a few congressmen, and what Jefferson called strangers of distinction joined him on the ride back, the tradition of the inaugural parade was born. When frontiersman Andrew Jackson was inaugurated in 1829, his hard-drinking Tennessee friends followed him right into the White House, mashing food and drink into the silk upholstery.

In 1841, President William Henry Harrison spoke so long on a bitter-cold day that he caught what was then called the grippe - a terrible chest cold. A month later his funeral procession marched slowly up the same Pennsylvania Avenue where he had ridden his big, white horse in the inaugural parade. Eight years later, Inauguration Day fell on a Sunday, so new president Zachary Taylor - a religious sort - let James K. Polk spend an extra day in office. In 1921, Warren G. Harding took the first inaugural automobile ride, and Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn will long be remembered for skipping their limo ride in 1977 and walking the entire two kilometers from the U.S. Capitol to the White House reviewing stand.

Eight other presidents - John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Theodore Roosevelt, Chester A. Arthur, Calvin Coolidge, Harry S. Truman, and Lyndon Johnson - got neither a great public ceremony nor a parade for their first - and in some cases only - inaugurations. That's because they were rushed before a judge to take the oath of office hours after their predecessors died - or, in four cases, were assassinated - in office. One of the most famous news photographs of the 20th century shows a somber Lyndon Johnson taking the oath on the presidential airplane as it carried the martyred John F. Kennedy back to Washington.

At some of the earlier inaugurations, you could go just about anywhere you pleased - even walk right up and shake the new president's hand. But on Tuesday, inaugural visitors braving the crowds near the U.S. Capitol will count themselves lucky if they can even get close enough to see triumphant Barack Obama taking his oath as the 44th president of the United States.

Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.


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