04 Jan 2021


Lost Capitol Hill: Inaugurations on the East Portico

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson would be the first to be sworn in on the East Portico of the Capitol. He was also the first that could have been, as the Capitol was not completed until 1826. While no contemporary picture of this event exists, there is a painting of Chief Justice John Marshall administering the oath of office to be seen in the ceiling of the Capitol. It was painted by Allyn Cox in the early 1970s. It shows the men, flanking a red-covered low table, just outside the partially open door of the Capitol. Just a few men and women, including one soldier in full uniform, surround them.

Four years later, the weather forced Jackson and the inauguration back inside, once again to the House Chamber.

Four years later, it was back outside for Martin van Buren’s inauguration, cementing the East Portico as the place to be sworn in, even when the weather was inclement. While it now seems unlikely that William Henry Harrison died from the effects of the cold weather he exposed himself to while giving his lengthy inaugural address, it was for years the accepted story, though it did not stop further inaugurations from taking place there – except for cases such as Tyler’s, who took the oath in his hotel room the day after Harrison’s death. Similarly, Fillmore was not sworn in on the portico when he took over after the death of Zachary Taylor, opting instead for a ceremony in the House Chamber.

At this time, the inaugurations were still fairly intimate affairs. A print of Taylor’s inauguration shows many of the guests sitting in comfortable chairs ranged around the portico, with another, slightly larger, group standing behind, while the new President stands in the middle, giving his speech.

James Buchanan’s inauguration was unique in a number of ways, not the least in that it was the first to be photographed. While the pictures from that day are typically blurry, they clearly show a large crowd below the steps leading to the portico. The steps have been covered with a curved platform with a railing, at which the new President stands. Behind him, the crowd continues up the stairs all the way back to the Capitol itself.

Buchanan’s inauguration on the East Front in 1857 – the first for which we have a photograph (LOC)

One thing that can’t be seen, unfortunately, is the Capitol dome. This was the original, small, dome, while the rest of the Capitol had been expanded, the new dome had not yet been built. Four years later, however, when Lincoln was inaugurated, the backdrop is quite clear, a large-scale building site for the new dome. While Lincoln’s term in office was almost entirely subsumed by the war, work on the dome continued, and at his second inauguration, the dome – with the Statue of Freedom surmounting it – remains.

A little over a month later, Andrew Johnson took his one and only oath of office in the Kirkwood House Hotel, near the White House. Thereafter, the East Portico again became the place to be, though both Hayes and Wilson took their oaths elsewhere, then returned on the Monday afterward for the usual ceremony, and Taft – due to inclement weather – took the oath in the Senate Chamber, but then appeared on the East Portico for at least some pictures.

In between, McKinley broke tradition in a small way by not having the ceremony on the East Portico, instead opting to build a stand to the right of the portico, in front of the old Senate wing of the Capitol. Why this was done is unclear.

Catch up on how the first inaugurations in D.C. were done here. Next week: Airships over the inauguration.

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