The country is still being ravaged by a deadly pandemic, economic turmoil and racial divisions. President Donald Trump tried to overturn the democratic election and egged on a mob that then stormed the Capitol to keep Congress from ratifying his defeat. And the House quickly impeached Trump for inciting an insurrection.
With the threat of more violence, some 25,000 National Guard troops have been deployed around Washington, making the city an armed camp resembling a foreign war zone. The pandemic had already compelled Biden to curtail the usual inaugural festivities, forcing many tens of thousands who would have come to stay away. And the Senate may put Trump on trial within days of the inauguration.
It will not, however, be the first tense inauguration in American history. The quadrennial tradition of renewing or transferring the presidency in Washington has at times heralded great change in the country, not just from one leader to the next but from one era to another. For many Americans, it can be a time of celebration, a new start when all things seem possible. But it has also been a jarring juncture that put the country’s divisions of the moment on display.
Here are some other times when the handover of power came at tense times:
After Abraham Lincoln won election and seven Southern states seceded over his anti-slavery views, threats to his life forced a change in plans for his trip to Washington to take the oath of office. Private detectives uncovered a plot to kill Lincoln when he passed through Baltimore, where he would have to travel across town from one train station to another to make the final leg to the nation’s capital.
Maryland was a slave state and Baltimore a hotbed of Southern sympathy, so Lincoln’s team came up with a way to sneak him through town. Lincoln boarded a special train in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and security agents cut telegraph wires to keep his departure secret. From Philadelphia, accompanied by just two other men, he took a late-night train to Baltimore, where he arrived undetected at 3:30 a.m., transferred stations and pulled into Washington safely at 6 a.m.
Reporters eventually learned of the subterfuge and mocked him mercilessly, even making up details suggesting that he had worn “a scotch plaid cap and very long military cloak” to disguise himself. The New York Herald tut-tutted that the new president had “crept into Washington” like a “thief in the night.” But no one was taking his security for granted. During the subsequent inauguration, sharpshooters kept watch from roofs, soldiers blocked streets and an artillery unit was deployed to the Capitol.
Rutherford B. Hayes’ election may have been the most disputed in American history until now. He finished behind his Democratic opponent, Samuel Tilden, in the popular vote and in the Electoral College, but three Southern states reported competing sets of electors. Ultimately, a commission appointed by Congress accepted the electors for Hayes, giving him the presidency just two days before the formal inauguration.
The next day, the departing president, Ulysses S. Grant, invited Hayes to the White House and had him secretly sworn in without the nation knowing, forestalling any last-ditch effort by Tilden or the Democrats to reverse the outcome and guarding against any possible violence by aggrieved Southerners. The inauguration was later repeated for the public, which did not know that Hayes had already taken the oath.
After Franklin D. Roosevelt won an unprecedented fourth term, he opted for a slimmed-down inauguration in deference to the sacrifices of a country fighting a world war abroad and enduring austerity measures at home — and reflecting his own failing strength with less than three months to live.
Rather than be sworn in at the Capitol, Roosevelt, his hands trembling and his voice weak, took the oath on the South Portico of the White House before a relatively small crowd. The ceremony lasted only 15 minutes. There was no inaugural parade, no gala ball, just a relatively perfunctory luncheon. “Dog catchers have taken office with more pomp and ceremony,” the president’s Secret Service chief observed.
Richard M. Nixon took the oath for the first time in the middle of a very different foreign war, one without popular support at home. Activists protesting the conflict in Vietnam gathered at several key points along the route of the inaugural parade while troops in uniform stood watch.
Targeting Nixon’s passing limousine, the protesters threw rocks, sticks, bottles, cans, firecrackers, smoke bombs, forks, spoons, tomatoes, manure, burning miniature American flags and a paint-filled Christmas ornament. “Two, four, six, eight — organize to smash the state,” they chanted. At one point, protesters tossed a ball of tinfoil that was mistaken for a possible bomb, and Nixon’s driver abruptly sped up to avoid it, causing the presidential passengers a jolt.
Nixon, who stood up in the open car at times, was unharmed and took little public notice of the disruption as he went on to the rest of a festive day. But the police arrested 81 people, and it was a sour start to a tumultuous tenure.
Perhaps no inauguration had quite the same drama and suspense as Ronald Reagan’s first. The departing president, Jimmy Carter, was negotiating right up until the final hours of his administration to win the release of 52 American diplomats held hostage in Iran.
The captors agreed to free them, but in a final jab at Carter, they held the plane filled with hostages until 25 minutes after Reagan became president. No one on the dais at the Capitol knew that the plane had taken off from Tehran until the ceremony was over, but once they learned the news, The New York Times reported, it turned the festivities “into an event of unbridled joy for Mr. Reagan and his supporters.”
Reagan and Carter were chilly with each other. Carter was miffed that Reagan’s staff would not wake him when he called early that morning to update him with the latest on the hostages. But Reagan offered gracious words about his defeated predecessor in his speech and gave Carter use of Air Force One to fly the next day to Germany to welcome back the captive Americans at a United States military base.
George W. Bush’s second inauguration was the first since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and to guard against possible terrorism, the government assembled the most expansive security net for an inauguration in history to that point. About 100 square blocks of downtown Washington were closed to traffic, while fighter jets and helicopters patrolled overhead and 13,000 National Guard troops and police officers manned the parade route and other locations.
The protective cordon was so tight that Bush joked that he was surprised that his Texas friends attending the events “were able to penetrate security.”
By the time Barack Obama took the oath of office, the country was in the middle of the most cataclysmic economic crisis since the Great Depression, still fighting two intractable wars overseas and on edge about the threat of terrorism at home. But Obama’s ascension as the first Black man to serve as president provided a euphoric moment for many Americans.
While many Black Americans worried about Obama’s safety, recalling the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the chief security concern at his swearing-in came not from white racists but from reports that a group of Somali extremists was planning to cross the Canadian border, travel to Washington and set off explosions on the National Mall in the middle of the inauguration. Bush’s team worked with Obama’s to secure the event. Ultimately, it turned out to be a false report, but it captured the jitters of the era.