Bomb Threats, Suffragists & Wilson’s Broken Pledge: The 1917 Sunday Inauguration, Part 5

Swear on a Sunday? No problem, if your Sunday Inauguration happens to also be your second Inauguration.

Six of President Obama’s predecessors also had Inauguration Days which fell on a Sunday, but only three were also being inaugurated for a second term: Wilson, Eisenhower and Reagan.

The President's Room in the U.S. Capitol as it looked when Woodrow Wilson took the first of his two 1917 Inaugural oaths there.

The President’s Room in the U.S. Capitol as it looked when Woodrow Wilson took the first of his two 1917 Inaugural oaths there.

Unlike the three 19th century Sunday Inaugurations, the Obama one in the 21st century and the three in the 20th century are also uniquely marked by two swearing-in ceremonies. The big, public one at the U.S. Capitol is still held, as were those of Monroe, Taylor and Hayes, on Monday, a day after the official start of the new Administration. But Obama, like Wilson, Eisenhower and Reagan before him will also take his oath on the day he is supposed to, in this case on Sunday, January 20, 2013.

Avoiding the 19th century situations where there might be technically no President or a one-day constitutional President because the men wanted to avoid the political fallout from the religious community for swearing on the Bible on a Sunday, it was Woodrow Wilson who broke that precedent.

So began the rarity of the “Double-Inauguration,” consisting of a private swearing-in ceremony on Sunday and a public one on Monday.

On Sunday, March 4, 1917, Wilson simply went up to the U.S. Capitol Building in a closed carriage with his wife Edith but without Inaugural Committee officials or marching escorts of any kind, alighted and went into the building, walking the labyrinth of hallways and entered the ornate “President’s Room” there. Despite it being the most ornate of rooms, its use remains largely ceremonial, simply a place for the head of the Executive Branch within the realm of the Legislative Branch.  where he can meet privately with House and Senate leaders or wait for a bit before he delivers the State of the Union or other addresses to Congress.

It was not particularly auspicious. First Lady Edith Wilson recalled the details in her memoirs:

The Wilsons ride to the Capitol for his second Second Inaugural ceremony, March 5, 1917.

The Wilsons ride to the Capitol for his second Second Inaugural ceremony on Monday, March 5, 1917.

“March 4th falling on Sunday, the oath of office was taken without formality. At 11:20 we reached the Capitol in a pouring rain, accompanied by Mr. McCormick. Mr. Tumulty, Mr. Rudolf Forster, Mr. Young and Pat McKenna from the Executive Offices awaited us in the President’s Room. Cabinet members, Senators and Representatives swarmed in and out while the President signed bills—all but the ship-arming bill, which the filibusters had defeated. At 11:40 Chief Justice White came in and began chatting with me. The committee which ordinarily waits on the President to say that Congress has adjourned, “having finished all business,” decided not to go through that form, as the statement would be manifestly untrue. So the adjournment was announced only by the ringing of a bell and the Clerk of the Senate’s saying to the Chief Justice:  ‘It is now twelve o’clock.’ My husband arose, standing beside the littered desk where he had been signing papers. The Clerk handed him the Bible he had used four years before, and also when he became Governor of New Jersey. The Chief Justice administered the oath. This simple ceremony (I was the only woman present) was more to our taste than the formal Inauguration which followed on Monday, March 5th.”

A British newspaper made the point that Wilson campaigned in 1916 on a promise he was unlikely to be able to keep if he won.

A British newspaper made the point that Wilson campaigned in 1916 on a promise he was unlikely to be able to keep if he won.

Nobody was sure how the public would react to Wilson’s decision to become the first President to take his oath of office on the day and time which is mandated by the Constitution. There was very little press coverage of the event before hand and no photographs. As it turns out, no minister or priest attacked the President from the nation’s pulpits that Sunday for breaking the old taboo.

As the son of a Presbyterian minister himself, Wilson found no compromise of his religious convictions in doing this. If he struggled within himself for committing any great sin that day, it was more likely because he had essentially won his second election as President by technically telling a massive lie.

“He Kept Us Out of War” was the campaign slogan which President Wilson had used to win re-election in 1916. While he never unequivocally declared that under no circumstances would he ever send American men to help allies England, Italy and France to fight Germany in the war which had begun in the summer of 1914.

Exactly 20 days after Woodrow Wilson took his first oath of office for his second term at the Capitol Building, he would return there to deliver his Declaration of War Message to Congress.

Wilson drives to Capitol with his wife on Monday March 5 1917.

Wilson drives to Capitol with his wife on Monday March 5 1917.

In truth, Wilson could not be blamed.  In the months between Election Day and Inauguration Day, German attacks continued against U.S. vessel. Entering the larger fight against Germany seemed inevitable. War was imminent.

It was already obvious, however, by the next morning when he proceeded with Mrs. Wilson, again up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol for his second, public oath ceremony.

Besides the expected District of Columbia police, for the first time since Lincoln’s inaugurations,, there were sharpshooters and other armed guards lining the route to and from the White House.

In this era of the “Red Scare” and anarchists assassinating world leaders, numerous bomb threat letters had been sent to President Wilson warning him that he would be killed on his Inauguration Day.

At the inaugural stand on the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol, there was a buffer of police but when Wilson learned that armed soldiers were also to be placed there, he felt it was too menacing.

The crowds amassed on the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol Building listen to President Wilson deliver his second Inaugural Address, March 5, 1917.

The crowds amassed on the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol Building listen to President Wilson deliver his second Inaugural Address, March 5, 1917.

Here was a democratic government celebrating the act of a free people; those who had cared enough to come out to watch the ceremony should not be intimidated by a show of potential violent force as would be more typical of the Czar’s guards in Russia.

Wilson delivers his inaugural address as Edith, in far right corner, observes the crowd reaction.

Wilson delivers his inaugural address as Edith, in far right corner, observes the crowd reaction.

The President must realistically be protected from harm but the visual symbolism had to give more of an accessible leader. he requested that there only be one row of Secret Service men and one row of soldiers without guns or bayonets.

In his Inaugural Address, Wilson raised the issue of the inevitably of the U.S. going to war against Germany: “There can be no turning back. Our own fortunes as a nation are involved whether we would have it so or not.”

The presence of U.S. Army soldiers, some in cars with the new artilleryn of war at Wilson's 1917 Inaugural made clear he would soon break his campaign promise.

The presence of U.S. Army soldiers, some in cars with the new artilleryn of war at Wilson’s 1917 Inaugural made clear he would soon break his campaign promise.

Apart from the armed soldiers at the day’s events who were there to guard the President, there were also contingents of them marching in the parade, some riding in automobiles which displayed the new artillery of American warfare.

The Wilsons and Marshalls review soldies marching in the 1917 Inaugural parade.

The Wilsons and Marshalls review soldies marching in the 1917 Inaugural parade.

Divisions from all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces marched in front of the Inaugural Parade reviewing stand, where the Wilsons were joined by Vice President Thomas Marshall and his wife, Lois Marshall.

There were also some civic groups among the military presence, reflecting the pride of new citizenship among the millions of immigrants who had come to the U.S. in the preceding two decades in the largest numbers ever from southern and eastern Europe.

Now, their loyalties were pledged to the United States and not their native lands, whichever side of the “Great War” conflict in Europe those nations might have been on.

A delegation of the Sons of Romania which marched in Wilson's 1917 Inaugural parade.

A delegation of the Sons of Romania which marched in Wilson’s 1917 Inaugural parade.

Having taken advantage of the fact that, being a second Inaugural, there was no outgoing President to traditionally ride with the President up to Capitol Hill, Edith Wilson decided to ride beside her husband, becoming the first First Lady to do so.

Suffragists picketing Wilson's 1917 Inauguration on the east side of the White House.

Suffragists picketing Wilson’s 1917 Inauguration on the east side of the White House.

She followed the 1909 example of Nellie Taft in also riding back with her husband from the Capitol to the White House, down Pennsylvania Avenue in an open carriage.

For a moment it seemed that the First Lady, and not the President, would be the victim of a bomb blowing up. Suddenly, thrown from the window of an office building along Pennsylvania Avenue, a small package landed in Mrs. Wilson’s lap.

To her relief, it was only a flower bouquet.

Something not quite as bad as a bomb but equally unwelcome would soon confront the President and First Lady. Edith Wilson’s smile dropped as their carriage neared the Inaugural Parade reviewing stand in front of the White House. On the small street between the White House and the Treasury Building were rows of women carrying banners demanding that Wilson pledge his support to the issue of women’s suffrage.

By January 30, when this famous image was taken, suffragists had staked out the White House in anticipation of Wilson's March inauguration day.

By January 30, 1917 when this famous image was taken, suffragists had staked out the White House in anticipation of Wilson’s March inauguration day.

The suffragists would not be going away anytime soon. All during the war, they remained around the perimeter of the White House, demanding the right to vote and never failing to point out the hypocrisy in the fact that, as the U.S. was sending men to die in a war against tyranny that it was also denying a right to citizens based simply on their gender.

There was no Inaugural Ball that year, as there had been none four years earlier. Woodrow Wilson felt that these were too frivolous and an unnecessary waste of time and money, even more so now as the nation gravely faced war.

His successors Harding, Coolidge, Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt would also have no Inaugural Balls on their Inauguration Days, although local charity balls were held.

Not until Truman’s 1949 Inauguration was the tradition of the Inaugural Ball revived.

One wonders what would happen in the case of a person elected President who is not an incumbent and simply taking the oath for a second term.

There’s no chance of anyone knowing this for, at the very least, twenty-eight more years.

The next Presidential Inauguration Day falls on a Friday, January 20, 2017.

Not until January 20, 2041, however, will there be another Sunday Inaugural.


Categories: Cleveland, Harrison, McKinley, Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, Harding, Edith Wilson, First Ladies, History, Individual Presidents, Presidential Inaugurations, Presidents, The Wilsons, Woodrow Wilson

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4 replies »

  1. Wilson was the last President to ride to the Capitol and back in a carriage. By the time of Harding’s inauguration in 1921, an open car was used.

    And talking of security worries, the home of Attorney-General Palmer still stands on R Street NW.

    • Thanks John – and you are right but as with the other comment I responded to here, I wonder why the Wilsons did not use a car – since there was more than one at their disposal. I suppose it was for a public show of openness since they did use a closed auto the day before to get to the Capitol for the private swearing-in ceremony.

  2. What I find most surprising here is that the Congress in those days was still conducting lots of business and the President signing legislation on a Sunday. On another note, some heads of state still ride to and from important events in open vehicles. The king and queen of Norway, for example, weather permitting, travel to and from the state opening of parliament every year in an open car called a cabriolet. All, of course, very retro, and I wonder how long such things will continue.

    • I wasn’t sure about that and it did cross my mind – but I guess in my mind I’ve seen the British Royal Family both take a carriage and a car to events. With the Wilsons, I’m really not sure why they did this – since there had been a fleet of Pierce Arrow cars at the disposal of the President and his family for eight year at that point.

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