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VERIFY: Answering common questions about Inauguration Day history

Current Inauguration Day precedent isn't as... precedented as you may assume.

Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States earlier Wednesday, assuming the office held by now-former President Donald Trump.

Inauguration Day is a long-held tradition in the United States, and often becomes the topic of a number of fun facts and precedents people commonly like to recall.

But which fun facts are confirmed? What’s the history behind Inauguration Day? 

The VERIFY team looked at a number of common Inauguration Day questions so you can know what’s true behind the day’s history.

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Have all presidential inaugurations been at the Capitol?

No. There have been 17 inaugurations that weren’t held on Capitol grounds.

The Architect of the Capitol, who erects the inaugural platform and coordinates much of the event’s physical arrangements, says the presidential oath of office has been taken at the U.S. Capitol 55 times in 72 inaugurations. They haven’t updated the page for Wednesday’s inauguration yet, so now it’s 56 times in 73 inaugurations.

Of the 17 times the inauguration has taken place outside of the Capitol, the White House has been host to it six times. It has been at the Old Brick Capitol where the Supreme Court now stands once, it’s taken place elsewhere in Washington twice and it’s occurred outside the nation’s capital city seven times.

Those seven times it’s been outside of Washington, D.C., include the very first inauguration when George Washington took the oath of office in New York City, before Washington was the capital, and when Lyndon B. Johnson took the oath of office on a plane in Texas following the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

The first president to be inaugurated at the Capitol in Washington was Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third president.

Has the inauguration always been on January 20?

No, that’s not always been the case either. It used to take place later in the year.

Both the Library of Congress and the White House show Washington was sworn in as the first U.S. president on April 30, 1789. He was inaugurated for his second term on March 4, 1793, which the library says was the official date of inauguration at the time. Sure enough, its index of inaugurations shows most presidents for more than 100 years were inaugurated on March 4.

March 4 was established as Inauguration Day in order to allow enough time after Election Day for officials to gather election returns and for newly elected candidates to travel to the capital. It was established before the Constitution was written, when the Confederation Congress that operated under the Articles of Confederation chose March 4, 1789, as the date it would hand off powers to the new government established by the Constitution and thus the date the Constitution would take effect.

But there was an opportunity to cut down the length of the lame duck period with the improvement of technology in travel and counting. The 20th Amendment moved the date to January 20 in 1933. Franklin Roosevelt was the first president sworn in on that date in 1937, his second of four inaugurations.

The standard date for inaugurations has remained January 20 ever since.

Have there been other instances where an inauguration lacked a crowd? Or even lacked a ceremony?

Yes, the VERIFY team was able to find at least 10 such instances. All of which were under pretty extraordinary circumstances.

Eight of those times were in the case a vice president took the oath of office after the president died. Some of these occurred within the White House, some were in other parts of Washington, D.C., or still others took place outside of the nation’s capital.

One of the remaining two times was when Gerald Ford took the oath of office following Richard Nixon’s resignation. Ford took the oath in the East Room of the White House following the Watergate scandal.

The last instance is probably most similar to Biden’s inauguration in why it’s an extraordinary swearing-in. Roosevelt’s fourth and final inauguration, in 1945 while the country was still in the midst of World War II, lasted just 15 minutes. The parade and festivities were cancelled because Roosevelt wanted to conserve money and manpower for war (he spent about $2,000 of the $25,000 budgeted for inauguration). Roosevelt also wanted to keep it short because he was suffering from heart failure.

While Biden isn’t looking to conserve money or manpower, he did want to keep crowds away because of the pandemic, and the inauguration was further locked down by the threat of violence.

What powers do presidents have on Inauguration Day?

Once they’re sworn in, presidents have access to all the powers of the office. And typically, they do use it.

The White House press secretary’s Twitter account announced on January 20, 2017, that Trump had signed on his first day a waiver so James Mattis could serve as secretary of defense, two formal Cabinet nominations to send to the Senate and a proclamation for a national day of patriotism.

Additionally, a White House press release cataloging the first week of Trump’s presidency mentioned that he signed an executive order on Affordable Care Act regulations and froze agencies from making new regulations before his Cabinet nominations could take their posts.

That last one is actually a common move for presidents in their first day in office. Similar memorandums were made by Barack Obama and Bill Clinton to begin their presidencies.

A page from Obama’s White House also mentioned he signed executive orders and memoranda on his first day in office.

But since Inauguration Day is typically filled with pageantry, usually the president doesn’t have time to do everything they want to on the outset of their term. As the White House press release suggests, many of the president’s Day One actions really become actions they take in the first week.

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