5 Historic Moments in Presidential Inauguration History

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As Donald Trump is inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States, supporters and haters will fight it out on social media platforms, and political analysts will argue and interrupt one another on the TV networks. Presidential inaugurations were certainly simpler affairs back in the day. Things were so informal at George Washington’s first inauguration that no one remembered to bring a Bible; a messenger raced to borrow one at a local Masonic lodge. Here’s a look back at some historic presidential inaugurations.


5. Lincoln’s Second Term: Only Known Photo of Lincoln Giving Speech (1865)

John Wilkes Booth attended Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural.

As Abraham Lincoln gave his inaugural speech, his future assassin, John Wilkes Booth, watched from the crowd behind him.

That’s President Abraham Lincoln (directly in center of photo) delivering his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865. It’s the only known photograph of Lincoln delivering a speech. In attendance that day: John Wilkes Booth, who would assassinate Lincoln six weeks later on April 14. Historians who have studied the photo believe Booth is standing on the platform to Lincoln’s right. (View an enlarged version of the photo here on Wikipedia, and a photo spotlighting the man believed to be Booth here.) Booth later reportedly said it would have been an “excellent chance … to kill the president, if I had wished.”


4. William McKinley: First Inauguration Captured on Film (1897)

William McKinley is one of four presidents to be assassinated, losing his life in 1901 just a few months into his second term. Here he is at festivities for his first inaugural in 1897, making it the first inauguration captured on the primitive film technology of the day. At some point decades later, an announcer added commentary to the primitive film, with the melodrama typical in newsreels of the mid-20th century. “The crowds cheer and crane their necks waiting for the president-elect to appear — and here he is!”


3. FDR Takes Oath With Foreign Bible (1933)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the oath of office on a Dutch Bible. Credit: Architect of the Capitol

Just imagine the outcry if Barack Obama, or any modern president for that matter, were sworn in with a foreign Bible. Here, Franklin Delano Roosevelt takes the oath of office by placing his hand on a family Bible written in Dutch. The Bible, dating to 1686, remains the oldest Bible ever used in an inauguration. FDR’s inauguration is noteworthy for another reason — it’s the last inauguration held in March. The 20th Amendment moved Inauguration Day to Jan. 20.


2. JFK: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’ (1961)

John F. Kennedy gave what is widely regarded as the best inaugural speech in history.

In one of the best inaugural addresses in history, John F. Kennedy challenged Americans: “Ask not what your country can do you for you; ask what you can do for your country.” JFK went on to say, “Let every nation know … that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”


1. George Washington Starts Tradition of Bible, Inaugural Address (1789)

George Washington established the tradition of using a Bible for the oath of office. The George Washington Inaugural Bible has been used to inaugurate four other presidents.

When George Washington took office as the first U.S. president, he had no inaugural protocol to follow. Washington himself set the precedent of giving an inaugural address. He also established the tradition of taking the oath of office with a Bible, a move followed by every president except John Quincy Adams (who took the oath on a law book). That George Washington Inaugural Bible has since been used for the inauguration of four other presidents, most recently George H.W. Bush.

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