Why Does Inauguration Day Fall on January 20?

Initially, the gap between Election Day and Inauguration Day was even longer.


​In many countries a newly elected leader takes power within a couple weeks or—as in the case of Great Britain—even the day following an election. In the United States, though, more than 11 weeks can pass between Election and Inauguration Days in order to give an incoming president time to choose a cabinet and plan for a new administration. The result is a lengthy lame-duck period, but it used to be even longer.

The Congress of the Confederation set March 4, 1789, as the date “for commencing proceedings” of the new government established by the U.S. Constitution. While a particularly bad winter delayed the inauguration of George Washington by eight weeks, subsequent incoming presidents and vice presidents took their oaths of office on March 4. 

The four-month gap was needed in part because of the time it took to count and report votes and to travel to the nation’s capital. However, the lengthy lame-duck period caused problems such as in the aftermath of the 1860 election when seven states left the Union during the long “Secession Winter.” President-elect Abraham Lincoln had no power to act, and outgoing President James Buchanan took no action, leaving the issue for his successor.

As technological advances greatly reduced the times to tabulate votes, report the results and travel, such a long lame-duck period was no longer logistically necessary. As a result, the 20th Amendment, which was ratified on January 23, 1933, moved up Inauguration Day to January 20 and the first meeting of the new Congress to January 3. 

The 20th Amendment didn’t take effect until October 1933, after the long lame-duck period once again proved problematic. With the U.S. in the throes of the Great Depression, incoming President Franklin D. Roosevelt had to wait four months to implement his New Deal while uncertainty further roiled financial markets. January 20 first served as Inauguration Day in 1937 when Roosevelt was sworn in for a second term. (On years when January 20 is a Sunday, a private swearing-in ceremony occurs with the public oath of office taken on January 21.)

{Joe Biden was the 47th vice president; now the 46th president;

sworn in at the 59th inauguration}​

Coat-check Blunders

Grant's inaugurations suffered from several blunders. Not only did he inadvertently lead to mass bird death at the second inauguration, his first inauguration in 1869 saw outright brawls. The people staffing the coat-check area couldn't read the claim tickets, so as people waited ever longer to pick up their outerwear, fights broke out and some guests abandoned their jackets and hats. "Illiterate workers mixed up everyone's coat claims, leading to fights among the men and tears among the women," writes Jim Bendat in "Democracy's Big Day: The Inauguration of our President 1789-2009" (iUniverse Star, 2008).

Nontraditional Parade

Bill Clinton prioritized diversity for his inaugural celebration. Rather than the traditional parade marchers of military cadets and equestrian teams, Clinton included a reggae band and lawn-chair drill team — members drill with lawn chairs — in his inauguration parade. The procession also included an Elvis Presley impersonator on a float with members of the late musician's original band.

Statement Jewelry

During his second inauguration in 1905, Teddy Roosevelt wore a ring containing a lock of Lincoln's hair. 

Theodore Roosevelt was greatly inspired by Abraham Lincoln — so much so that during his second inauguration in 1905, Roosevelt wore a ring containing a lock of Lincoln's hair. The ring was gifted to him by Secretary of State John Hay, who was Lincoln's former personal secretary. After Lincoln's assassination, Hay reportedly paid $100 for six strands of hair to be removed from the President’s head during his autopsy. Hay later had one of these strands mounted into a ring under an oval piece of glass.

Quiet Ceremony

Calvin Coolidge, known as "Silent Cal," was notorious for talking little and doing things with no fanfare. That includes the start of his presidency. He was staying with his father in rural Vermont when news came that President Warren G. Harding had died. Because the 30th president's father happened to be a justice of the peace, his father performed the swearing in right there, without an audience.

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Lasso Laughs

During Dwight Eisenhower's 1953 inauguration, the American infatuation with on-screen cowboys was at such a peak that Montie Montana, a rodeo rider and movie star, was included in the ceremony. Though Montana initially suggested presenting the president with a 10-gallon cowboy hat, this idea was bucked for a lasso. Montana rode up to the inaugural parade stand on horseback and lassoed the newly sworn-in president in front of the crowd..

On Page 7:

* 15 Weird Inaugurations

* Why January 20?

House Party From Hell

After Andrew Jackson's inauguration in 1829, the seventh president threw an epic party at the White House straight out of an '80s movie. Jackson was notorious for his frontier-style, "man of the people" mystique and he attracted a similarly rough crowd. The louts crashed the party, sloshed through the house in muddy shoes, broke china and ripped the curtains down. To get them to leave, the staff used a time-tested trick: Leaving a tub of whiskey on the front lawn.

Fumbled Oath

Barack Obama's first inauguration actually happened twice. During the swearing-in ceremony Chief Justice John Roberts of the U.S. Supreme Court stumbled over the oath, leading Obama to mix up his words. To avoid any doubt about the legality of Obama's presidency, the two men redid the constitutionally mandated oath the next day, word for word.

Some Air, Please

While partying has always been a major part of the inaugural tradition, guests were considerably rowdier in years past. During James Madison's inaugural ball in 1809, the weather got so hot that patrons reportedly broke out the windows at Long's Hotel so they could breathe. (Tickets for the ball apparently cost $4 each; about $84 today.)

Debating a Little Girl

In 1929, when President Herbert Hoover was sworn in, the chief justice who administered the oath, William Howard Taft, garbled it, substituting the word "maintain" for "protect." An eighth-grade girl named Helen Terwilliger caught the flub, and sent Taft a note. Instead of admitting the error, Taft wrote a letter insisting he got the words right, and movie buffs eventually played their newsreels to determine who was right. The eighth-grader held the day and Taft eventually conceded he was wrong.

Dead Birds

Ulysses S. Grant thought that canaries would add a festive touch to his inaugural ball in 1873, the beginning of his second term. Unfortunately, the 18th president failed to anticipate the cold temperatures — the morning low was 4 degrees Fahrenheit (about 15 degrees Celsius), the coldest March day on record. With wind chill, the day felt like a blustery minus 15 F to minus 30 F (minus 26 C to minus 34 C). All told, about 100 birds froze to death during Grant's inauguration.

Running for Office

President James Buchanan had an extreme case of diarrhea on his Inauguration Day in 1857. Prior to the inauguration, the 15th president of the United States had contracted a case of "National Hotel Disease," by staying at a shady establishment. The stubborn case of dysentery lingered past his inauguration, and Buchanan needed a doctor nearby during the ceremony.

Killer Speech

William Henry Harrison's inauguration speech was deadly dull. The ninth president of the United States holds the record for longest inaugural address at about 8,500 words. Harrison stood so long in the cold, rainy weather to give his inauguration speech that he caught a chill, got pneumonia and died just a month later. But not everyone thinks the speech killed him; he may have gotten his cold three weeks later, meaning his rainy day performance wasn't to blame for his demise.

135 Words

During his second inauguration, the nation's first president gave the shortest inaugural address. With a succinct 135 words, George Washington thanked the American people for the distinguished honor and reminded them of the oath he would take — short and to the point.

More Dead Birds

Birds don't seem to do well on Inauguration Day. During Richard Nixon's Inauguration Day parade in 1973, he wanted to make sure pigeons didn't ruin his big day. The 37th president had a chemical bird repellant sprayed all along the inaugural parade route. The streets were strewn with dozens of dead pigeons.

The 15 Weirdest Presidential Inaugurations in US History

By Kacey Deamer, Tia Ghose, Live Science,  January 20, 2017

Drunken Oratory

In 1865, Andrew Johnson gave a train-wreck of a speech on the big day. The vice president usually gives a short and smooth speech prior to the president's address. But the 16th vice president, who later became the 17th president after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated that year, was ill with typhoid fever and took the medicine of the day, whiskey, the night before. The hangover must have gone to his head: During the speech, he bragged about his humble origins and his triumph over Confederate rebels. Lincoln reportedly looked on in horror, while the former vice president Hannibal Hamlin tugged at his coattails in a failed bid to get him to stop.