John Quincy Adams summarized his experience of the very first Inaugural Ball of 1809 by saying, “The crowd was excessive, the heat oppressive and the entertainment bad.” Those seeking continuity between it and President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Ball on Monday, January 21, 2013 might only need to look across the ballroom floor. Or at least try to.
Some 19th century Inaugural Balls were held in tents on days of sub-zero temperatures, so the heat has not always been oppressive. With professional singers and bands performing at Inaugural Balls since the mid-2oth century, the entertainment has not always been bad.
As images from almost two hundred years of Inaugural Balls prove, however, the crowds have always been excessive.
In the first 100 years which followed the 1809 Presidential Inaugural Ball of James Madison, at least one Inaugural Ball was held for every elected President, except for Franklin Pierce in 1857, then in mourning for his eleven-year old son, and Rutherford Hayes in 1877, whose disputed election led to an unusual inauguration with no time to plan a ball.
Although Mrs. Pierce was depressed and in deep mourning after their son’s death to even appear in Washington for her husband’s inaugural, the new President did host a White House reception, following his swearing-in ceremony.
The only two Presidents elected from the Whig Party even featured three separate Inaugural Balls each, in 1841 for William Henry Harrison and 1849 held for Zachary Taylor.
Woodrow Wilson ordered the cancellation of a ball, considering it frivolous on a day that should be solemn, both for his 1913 and 1917 Inauguration Days.
For his 1921 Inauguration Day, Warren G. Harding appointed his two chums Edward B. McLean and Jess Smith as co-chairmen of an Inaugural Ball, but public criticism of reviving the big party caused him to reconsider and cancel it.
During the next six Presidential Inaugurations, from 1925 to 1945, however, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt made no attempt to revive the Inaugural Ball tradition.
Instead, on the evenings of their Inauguration Days, fundraising balls were held in Washington hotels to raise money for local charities. During those held on Franklin Roosevelt’s Inauguration nights, his favorite charity the March of Dimes for Infantile Paralysis was made the recipient of the money raised and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt appeared at the events.
The tradition of the Inaugural Ball returned on January 20, 1949 in honor of Harry S. Truman taking the oath of office that day, after having been elected to his own full term. And it has never ceased ever since then.
Two other Inaugural Ball footnote worth mentioning.First, although Inaugural luncheons and receptions have been hosted in the White House, there has never been an Inaugural Ball held there.
Secondly, there was one newly-inaugurated President who actually hosted his Inaugural Ball in his own private home. When James Monroe took his oath of office for his first term on March 4, 1817, he and his family did not yet have an official residence to move into. The White House had been burned in 1814 by British troops during the War of 1812, forcing the incumbents James and Dolley Madison to move out, into temporary headquarters where they would remain through the end of his Administration.
Their successors, James and Elizabeth Monroe were living in their private home on I Street at the time of his Inauguration, the renovated White House not ready for occupancy until some months later. So that’s where they hosted his 1817 Inaugural Ball, albeit for a much smaller population of Washington than exists today.
The Monroe House, long used as the private Washington Arts Club, still stands.
Whether it was in a canvas tent or a hotel ballroom, for a Democrat or Republican, initiating a first term or a second term, the one consistent element which has remained consistent for over two centuries now is that the Presidential Inaugural Ball has always been jammed, crowded, and packed with partisan party loyalists, political opportunists, historical witnesses, social climbers and people who want to dance or claim they found enough room on the ballroom floor and just say they did.
And while the focus inevitably shifts to what the President said or what the First Lady wore, the truly central figures of the Inaugural Ball is really the people who make the effort and spend the money to attend. They may think they are there to just pay homage to the person elected to the presidency but they are also, more largely, certifying with celebration the very process of a free election.
Stolen or otherwise.
Here now, a glimpse back at the hundreds of thousands who came to Washington and attended the Inaugural Balls, with a few occasional glances at the Presidents and First Ladies who also happened to be there.
All that said and done, a Presidential Inauguration need not even have an official Inaugural Ball for the public to come out in massive numbers of crowds.
On the very night of the very first Presidential Inauguration of George Washington in 1789, the people partied in the streets of old New York.
By all accounts, they still had a ball.
- The Very First Inaugural Ball: Hot for Her, Not for Him (carlanthonyonline.com)
- The Double Rarity of Obama’s 2013 Sunday Second Inauguration, Part 1 of 7 (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Bomb Threats, Suffragists & A Broken Campaign Pledge: The 1917 Sunday Inauguration, Part 5 (carlanthonyonline.com)
- A Mid-Century Cold War Show & High Visibility Veep: The 1957 Sunday Inauguration, Part 6 (carlanthonyonline.com)
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