Unwanted at Past Inaugurals: Tensions, Politics and Unruly Guests

By Karen M. Sughrue
An image from RetroReport

In the days before President Biden's inauguration, Washington went into lockdown. Checkpoints, National Guard troops and miles of fencing, razor wire and barricades were deployed following the Jan. 6 Capitol riot by Trump supporters. But it was not the first time security concerns and political divisions shaped an inauguration.

Shortly before the ceremony, then President-elect Biden said, “I'm not afraid of taking the oath outside.” The practice originated with George Washington, who was sworn in on a balcony overlooking Wall Street “that the greatest number of people…may be witnesses to the solemnity.”

Former President Trump is the first no-show at a successor’s inauguration since 1869. John Adams didn't attend the 1801 inauguration, bitter over his defeat by Thomas Jefferson. Historians say he wanted to catch an early stagecoach home, still grieving over his son’s recent death from alcoholism.

An image from RetroReport

President’s Levee, or all Creation going to the White House, painted by the Robert Cruikshank.

Andrew Jackson’s 1829 inauguration was the first to be open to the public. People swarmed the White House to meet Jackson, a war hero, muddying furniture and spilling spiked orange punch. Congressmen fled through the windows, blaming the mess on giving political rights to the ungovernable.

At Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861, with civil war on the horizon, soldiers with bayonets and armed undercover agents roamed the crowd. “Had any hostile hand been raised against the President,” one attendee said, “its owner would very speedily have bitten the dust.”

An image from RetroReport

Inauguration of President Hayes. This photo shows the Senate wing of the U.S. Capitol and the crowd on the lawn before it, March 5, 1877.

In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes’s election was not official until the day before inauguration: Three states had disputed the results, and Congress had to settle the matter. Hayes took the oath in secret, in fear for his life, then took it again in public two days later.

Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 inauguration was disrupted when thousands of women demanding the right to vote staged a protest march. “Women were spit upon, slapped in the face…pelted with burning cigar stubs,” reports said. More than 160 people were arrested.

As inauguration crowds grew, so did security efforts, especially after the attacks of 9/11. SWAT teams, bomb techs, hostage negotiators and dive teams were deployed for Barack Obama’s 2013 inauguration.

An image from RetroReport

Washington’s reception by the ladies, on passing the bridge at Trenton, N.J. April 1789, on his way to New York to be inaugurated first president of the United States.

President Biden abandoned plans to arrive at his inauguration via Amtrak, his usual “man of the people” commute, missing out on the kind of adulation George Washington received from the women of Trenton as he rode by horse from Mt. Vernon to New York for his inauguration in 1789.

Learn something new from history: Subscribe to our newsletter, and follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.