Presidential inaugurations are supposed to happen every four years like clockwork. It was always the 4th March until 1937, then the 20th January from then on. Unfortunately, Presidential deaths and resignations don’t stick to the schedule. There have been nine so-called ‘extraordinary inaugurations’ in history. The first was nearly two hundred years ago and the most recent nearly fifty.
This is what happens when your inauguration comes a little unexpectedly.
- Date: 6th April 1841
- Location: Brown’s Indian Queen Hotel, Washington D.C
- Oath Administered By: William Cranch, Chief Judge of the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia
The Circumstances: The Whig party struggled to get a ticket mate for their 1840 candidate, William Henry Harrison. Former Senator John Tyler eventually got the role, though he did not campaign. The reasons for his appointment are generally unknown. He did some campaigning during the election, but was known for keeping his political views rather quiet. Tyler stayed in Virginia until the inauguration, spent a short amount of time in Washington and then returned home.
Letters came through from Washington, conveying Harrison’s poor health. Tyler realised that Harrison was dying. Early on the 5th April, news of Harrison’s death reached Tyler. He immediately rushed to DC.
Many thought the role of Vice President was essentially useless, but the unprecedented death of a sitting President changed things. The Cabinet leaned towards the view that Tyler was not actually President, but Acting President. Tyler disputed this view. He set about arranging to take the oath of office.
The Inauguration: There are no primary sources that give an exact telling of the inauguration, but the basic facts are known. Tyler was sworn in by William Cranch, Chief Judge of the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia on the 6th April 1841. The location was the lobby of the Brown’s Indian Queen Hotel (the hotel no longer exists).
What Happened Next: Tyler gave a speech in front of Congress on the 9th April, but his legitimacy was still questioned. He was nicknamed “His Accidency” by critics. Tyler chose not to have a Vice President, strange considering the circumstances, though this would not become mandatory until 1967. As President, Tyler is divisive- some historians claim him to be a strong leader, whilst others said he was inept. He is often forgotten by the public at large.
Crucially, Tyler’s decision to immediately claim the presidency after Harrison’s death set a precedent. It ensured that the Vice President would not become a caretaker, but President in his own right. This would be the case for all the accidental presidents that came after him.
- Date: 10th July 1850
- Location: Capitol Building, Washington D.C
- Oath Administered By: William Cranch, Chief Judge of the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia
The Circumstances: Millard Fillmore was chosen to be Zachary Taylor’s ticket mate due to his power in the vital state of New York. Unfortunately, Taylor has no interest in Fillmore’s opinions and openly disregarded him. Fillmore thus spent his time between New York and the Senate. It was like this for the year and four months that he was VP.
On the 4th July 1850, it was extremely hot. President Taylor drank lots of milk, washed down with cherries. The next day, he fell ill with what looked like a stomach problem. Despite initially feeling better, Taylor started to feel very ill. Fillmore was part of the vigil made up of Cabinet members. Taylor died late on the 9th July 1850. Fillmore received word soon after.
The Inauguration: Fillmore took his oath of office in front of a joint session of Congress on the 10th July. We do not have any primary sources for this, but we can assume it was because Fillmore wanted to make his succession legitimate.
What Happened Next: Fillmore accepted the resignation of Taylor’s cabinet, but he did attempt to continue his legacy. This culminated in the Compromise of 1850, which would stave off the question of slavery for a few more years. Fillmore’s unpopularity with the Whigs from the North led him to lose the party’s nomination in 1852.
The Compromise of 1850 and other factors made Fillmore one of the least popular presidents among historians. He is not well-remembered by the public, apart from his strange name.
- Date: 15th April 1865
- Location: Kirkwood House, Washington D.C
- Oath Administered By: Salmon P. Chase, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
The Circumstances: The American Civil War was raging in 1864 and thus Abraham Lincoln was looking for unity. Andrew Johnson was a Southern Democrat who was pro-Union and served as Military Governor of Tennessee. This made him appealing to Lincoln and thus the President chose Johnson as his new ticket mate. The National Union Party won.
Circumstances forced Johnson to stay in Washington D.C longer than he’d wanted. Johnson was staying in a boarding house when he was awoken with the news of Lincoln’s shooting. He would soon learn that it was a larger conspiracy and that he too was one of the targets. His attempted assassin had gotten too drunk and lost his bottle. Johnson briefly visited Lincoln before heading back to the boarding house. He was awoken with the news of Lincoln’s death the next morning.
The Inauguration: Johnson sent word to Cabinet that he was ready to take the oath. They summoned Salmon P. Chase, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and he joined them at the boarding house that Johnson was staying at, along with a delegation of Senators. Johnson (sober this time) was sworn in by Chase, and gave a short speech.
What Happened Next: Whilst this was the third extraordinary inauguration in America’s history, the fact it was an assassination was a shock. It also occurred at the tail end of a bloody war. Johnson ensured that those behind Lincoln’s assassination were brutally punished.
As the President who presided over the end of the Civil War and the start of Reconstruction, Johnson was undoubtedly in one very difficult position. Whilst Lincoln was still widely hated in many quarters, he had still been revered and even his critics were horrified by the assassination.
Johnson is regarded as one of the worst US Presidents due to his handling of Reconstruction, policies towards African-Americans and perceived softness towards the South.
Chester A. Arthur
- Date: 20th September/22nd September 1881
- Location: His home, NYC/ Capitol Building, Washington D.C
- Oath Administered By: John R. Brady, Justice of the Supreme Court of New York/Morrison Waite, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
The Circumstances: Factions in the Republican Party were causing problems in the 1880 election. There were two warring factions: Half-Breeds and Stalwarts. The Half-Breeds pushed for an end to patronage, proposing civil service reform and a system of meritocracy. Stalwarts wished to keep patronages and the spoil system. Eventual candidate James A. Garfield was a member of neither faction but did have sympathies for civil service reforms. Chester A. Arthur represented the New York Stalwarts, a powerful faction. He was chosen as Garfield’s Vice President.
Arthur was alienated from Garfield’s inner circle. He spent most of his time presiding over the Senate and sorting out business in New York. Arthur was in Albany when word came that Garfield had been shot. For the next few months, as Garfield lingered, Arthur was in a tricky position. The assassin called out Arthur’s name during the attack and proclaimed that he would be President. If he headed to Washington and took on presidential duties, then he’d be seen as over eager and possibly involved. He instead stayed away.
It was in New York that Arthur learned that Garfield had died.
The Inauguration: Arthur was at home on Lexington Avenue when the news arrived. Despite the late hour, Arthur sent for a judge. John R. Brady, Justice of the New York Supreme Court, made it first and thus officiated the oath. Arthur made his way to Garfield’s funeral before heading down to D.C.
In order to ensure a smooth and absolute succession, Arthur made a second oath. This was administered by Morris Waite, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, and was made in front of a few dozen prominent politicians. Arthur gave a short speech afterwards, remembering Garfield and talking about the importance of anti-corruption among other things.
What Happened Next: Arthur had been genuinely devastated by Garfield’s death despite not being friends with him, but the public disliked him immensely. Feeling obligated to continue Garfield’s actions, Arthur spearheaded civil service reform. At the end of his term, Arthur was in very poor health, but decided to run for renomination. His effort was meek at best and it went to another candidate. Arthur ultimately died a year and a half after leaving office.
Historians tend to rank Arthur near the bottom of league tables, but not absolute worst. A survey that asked participants to recall all US presidents saw Arthur the least remembered- only 7% could remember him. He’s also the last President not to have a VP.
- Date: 14th September 1901
- Location: 641 Delaware Avenue, Buffalo, New York
- Oath Administered By: John R. Hazel, Judge of the United States District Court for the Western District of New York
The Circumstances: When William McKinley’s Vice President William Hobart died in November 1899, he needed to find a ticket mate for the election next year. New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt was infuriating the Republican Party leaders and they wanted to get rid of him. It was decided that they’d give him the relatively ‘powerless’ role of Vice President. Roosevelt tried to refuse the role, knowing it would clip his wings, but he was eventually won over. The ticket won easily in the 1900 election and Roosevelt was inaugurated as VP in March 1901.
Roosevelt was miserable as VP. He had barely any responsibilities and thus felt restricted. On the 6th September 1901, Roosevelt was climbing a mountain in Vermont when news of McKinley’s shooting reached him. He immediately headed down to Buffalo to be at McKinley’s side. All signs seemed positive, so Roosevelt headed upstate to continue his vacation. Whilst McKinley seemed to be on the mend, there were a lot of internal issues that had not been discovered. On the 13th September, McKinley grew suddenly worse, and it was clear to all that he was dying. Word was sent to Roosevelt, who was miles away from civilization. McKinley died early the next morning. Roosevelt learned of this when he arrived at a nearby train station.
The Inauguration: Ansley Wilcox, a friend of Roosevelt’s, invited Roosevelt to his home. It was there that members of the Cabinet assembled. We have no pictures of the event, but it’s known that Roosevelt gave a quick commemoration of McKinley before the oath. Roosevelt was sworn in by John R. Hazel, Judge of the United States District Court for the Western District of New York that afternoon.
What Happened Next: Roosevelt completed the rest of the term and ran again in 1904, winning by a bigger margin than McKinley had. He retired in 1908, but came back again and ran as a Progressive candidate in 1912. It was during campaigning that Roosevelt was nearly the victim of an assassin’s bullet. He was saved when the bullet lodged in his glasses holder and his written speech. Roosevelt assessed the damage, knew he wasn’t mortally wounded, and carried on speaking for ninety minutes.
The first “accidental President” to win election in his own right, Roosevelt is often seen as the most successful of the group. He usually ranks in the top 5 or thereabouts in league tables. McKinley is often forgotten by his more colourful and successful successor.
- Date: 3rd August 1923
- Location: Coolidge Homestead, Plymouth Notch, Vermont/Court of the District of Columbia
- Oath Administered By: John Coolidge Sr, Notary and Justice of the Peace (Father of Coolidge)/Adolph A. Hoehling Jr, Justice of the Court of the District of Columbia
The Circumstances: Warren G. Harding’s nomination at the 1920 Republican Convention was the result of a smoke-filled, backroom deal. Delegates were unhappy and thus pushed for Calvin Coolidge, the popular Governor of Massachusetts. Coolidge agreed to the nomination and the ticket won.
Harding and Coolidge were not close, but the President did invite his VP to sit in on cabinet meetings. Coolidge had a generally uneventful vice presidency, making speeches and supporting the party. His lack of closeness with Harding meant that he was not involved in the corruption of the presidential inner circle.
During a tour of Alaska and the West Coast, Harding fell ill. He had to skip a scheduled stop in Portland, but felt well enough to go to San Francisco. Harding collapsed walking from the car to the hotel, where doctors diagnosed pneumonia and heart issues. Despite initially feeling better, Harding died suddenly on the evening of the 2nd August 1923.
The Inauguration: Coolidge and his wife were visiting his father’s home in Plymouth, Vermont. As the house was remote with no telephone line, someone had to be sent to break the news. It was the middle of the night when Coolidge took the oath in front of his wife and a small crowd. His father, John Coolidge, used the Bible to swear his son in.
Upon returning to DC, Coolidge secretly took a second oath, administered by Adolph A. Hoehling. This was because they were unsure of the legitimacy of Coolidge Sr’s authority.
What Happened Next: Coolidge served the remainder of the term and won re-election in his own right. He and Harding both enjoyed an administration filled with general prosperity. Coolidge would oversee a budget surplus. Harding’s true nature came to light after his death, with his corruption making him unpopular among historians. Coolidge’s ranking depends on the historian’s political persuasion. More conservative, laissez-faire commentators rank him higher, whilst left-wing, big government types do the opposite.
Harry S. Truman
- Date: 12th April 1945
- Location: Cabinet Room, White House, Washington D.C
- Oath Administered By: Harlan F. Stone, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
The Circumstances: Franklin D. Roosevelt had three VPs during his administration. The first, John Nance Garner, was the VP during FDR’s first two terms. A split in policy between Garner and Roosevelt meant that a new ticket mate was picked in 1940. The new VP, Henry A. Wallace was the opposite of Garner in that he was fairly left-wing and pro-union. This made him unpopular with party bosses. Harry S. Truman, a Senator from Missouri, was a loyal party member and generally uncontroversial.
Truman won on the second ballot, as Wallace supporters put up a fight. The 1944 election saw Roosevelt win a record fourth term as President. Truman met Roosevelt only a handful of times as Vice President and was essentially locked out of the loop. He did not know about the Manhattan Project, the plan that was developing the nuclear bomb to use on Japan, despite being a heartbeat away from the presidency. One person who did know was future President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
On the 12th April 1945, Truman had just finished up his Senate duties when a messenger told him he was needed at the White House immediately. The news was broken to him by Eleanor Roosevelt.
The Inauguration: The inauguration was essentially immediate. Harlan F. Stone, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, administered the oath in the Cabinet Room of the White House. There were about two dozen witnesses, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Bess and Margaret Truman. This was the first inauguration to be photographed.
What Happened Next: Truman would eventually learn of the Manhattan Project and would elect to use the new nuclear bomb on Japan. He oversaw a hugely important era in US and world politics. The war ended, but the Cold War was beginning and Europe was in ruins. Important events during the Truman administration included the Korean War and Marshall Plan. He left the presidency unpopular- poor approval ratings influenced his decision not to run again, especially after firing General MacArthur.
Historians tend to be more favourable to Truman than his contemporaries did, as retrospective analysis favoured him. He tends to rank in the top ten of presidents, with praise going to his leadership during turbulent times.
Lyndon B. Johnson
- Date: 22nd November 1963
- Location: Air Force One, Dallas Love Field, Texas
- Oath Administered By: Sarah T. Hughes, Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas
Circumstances: John F. Kennedy became the chosen candidate for the Democrats in 1960, but his candidacy had its deficits. Kennedy was quite young (though only four years younger than opponent Richard Nixon), from the northern elite and a Catholic. The Southern Democrats still had a stronghold on the party and many in the country distrusted Catholics. Overtures were made to the well-experienced Johnson. Johnson also represented the important state of Texas. Despite his annoyance over Kennedy’s age and his hatred of Bobby Kennedy, Johnson accepted.
The election was extraordinarily close, but the Democrats squeaked a victory. Johnson had a good amount of power as Vice President, as Kennedy was aware of his own inexperience.
In November 1963, Kennedy decided to do a tour of Texas in order to shore up support at the next election. He was guided by Governor John Connally, the conservative Democrat. Johnson, his wife Lady Bird, and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. The Kennedys and Connallys were in their own car in the motorcade when shots rang out. Both the President and Governor Connally had been hit. The motorcade rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital; Johnson’s car followed suit.
Johnson and Lady Bird were in a private room when somebody came in to announce the death. Lady Bird would later say that she knew Kennedy was dead as soon as Johnson was called ‘Mr. President.’ With Kennedy’s body in tow, the Johnsons and Jackie returned to Air Force One.
The Inauguration: Though the inauguration was on Air Force One, the plane was still on the ground when it happened. Needing someone to administer the oath, Johnson sent for his friend Sarah T. Hughes. She was a Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas. As of writing, she is the only woman to have ever sworn in a President.
With Jackie Kennedy and Lady Bird at his side, Johnson swore the oath. There was no video of the event, but the image of Johnson swearing the oath, a shocked Jackie beside him, is famous.
What Happened Next: Johnson eulogised Kennedy and got to work as President. He set up a commission to investigate the assassination. Using the goodwill and mourning of the nation, Johnson used his famous skill to push through legislation on civil rights. He ran in 1964 and beat Republican rival Barry Goldwater in a landslide. With a huge win under his belt, Johnson further pushed civil rights legislation as well as social welfare reform. Unfortunately, it wasn’t all rosy for Johnson. His escalation of the Vietnam War proved widely unpopular and is seen as a low point in foreign policy. Johnson would see anti-war protests soar and was besieged by daily chants outside the White House. Despite civil rights legislation passing, racial tensions were at a very low point.
Knowing that he was deeply unpopular and that his health was poor, Johnson shocked the nation on the 31st March 1968 by announcing he didn’t want to run again. The year saw MLK and Robert Kennedy assassinated, the latter being favoured for the Democratic candidacy. Nixon won easily.
Johnson is ranked highly by historians, who praise his push on civil rights and social programmes, such as Medicare. He is strongly criticised for his handling of Vietnam.
- Date: 9th August 1974
- Location: East Room, White House, Washington D.C
- Oath Administered By: Warren E. Burger, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
The Circumstances: Richard Nixon won the 1972 election in a landslide, winning every state apart from Massachusetts and DC. Unfortunately, news was spreading of a break in at the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate. It soon came out that the burglars had links to the Nixon campaign, administration and potentially the man himself. Nixon’s first VP, Spiro Agnew, had been forced to resign in October 1973 due to several charges. The hunt was on for a new first mate.
Republican leaders were unanimous in their support of House Minority Leader Gerald Ford. Ford was well-liked across the aisle and would easily be confirmed. Despite his wife’s misgivings and insistence on him retiring, Ford felt duty bound to accept the job. He was sworn into office in December 1973.
Whilst Ford may not have realised how close he was becoming President at first, it would become clear in early August. The Fords were waiting to move into the Vice President’s official residence when word came that a new tape was to be released. Said tape was extremely damaging. Ford remarked to his wife that they probably weren’t ever going to live in the VP’s house. He’s probably the only accidental president to learn his fate first.
On around the 7th August, Ford was made aware that Nixon was going to resign. Nixon made the announcement on the 8th August, saying his resignation would be effective the next day.
The Inauguration: Ford and Betty walked Nixon and Pat to the helicopter and waved them off. They returned and headed to the East Room of the White House. In a recorded and photographed ceremony, Ford made the oath of office, sworn in by Chief Justice Warren Burger. He made a short speech afterward, which included the famous line ‘my fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.’
What Happened Next: Whilst Ford’s good character and affable nature made him a great person to restore faith in the presidency, his next move caused great controversy. Less than a month after being inaugurated, Ford pardoned Nixon. Ford reasoned that a prolonged trial would upset the nation. He was also personally sympathetic to Nixon and his family. The pardon ignited outrage and is essentially the reason Ford would lose the next election.
Ford enjoyed some victories, such as the end of the Vietnam War and the easing of Cold War tensions. Unfortunately, the pardon loomed large, and the economy wasn’t great. Nevertheless, the 1976 election was closer than it should have been. He did also manage to shake off a challenge for the nomination by Ronald Reagan.
Historians tend to rank Ford low, though he is not considered among the worst. His morality and genuine push to do good are considered highlights, but he often falls down on the economy and communication.