That Mysterious Woman at Obama’s Sunday Inaugural Ceremony & Historical Context

President Obama takes the oath of office for his second term on Sunday, January 20, 2013, Elizabeth Monroe's portrait behind him.

President Obama takes the oath of office for his second term on Sunday, January 20, 2013, Elizabeth Monroe’s portrait behind him.

In politics, you can never anticipate just who will pop into the pictures of history.

Earlier today, January 20, 2013, President Barack Obama repeated the first of two oath-of-office clauses and was sworn into his second term as President. Tomorrow, January 21, 2013, he will take the second of these at the public ceremony on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol Building.

The only other known likeness of First Lady Elizabeth Monroe.

The only other known likeness of First Lady Elizabeth Monroe.

And in a photograph that was instantly transmitted around the globe, a woman in a black turban posed in a dress with white ermine sleeves stared out remotely right behind the President.

It was the portrait of First Lady Elizabeth Monroe. Perhaps it was some sort of coincidental kismet that the image of a woman whose husband was first President 196 years ago (his two terms ran from 1817 to 1825) would be so visible in the year 2013.

As it turns out, Monroe was the first of only five Presidents whose second terms began on a Sunday like Obama, but Elizabeth Monroe was unable to witness her husband’s oath in 1821.

One of those First Ladies about whom little primary documentation has survived, she suffered from several vague ailments. Beside chronic and severe rheumatism, based on a record of symptoms, Mrs. Monroe also was one of two First Ladies who lived with seizure disorder, more popularly known as epilepsy. The other was Ida McKinley.

Well, at least Mrs. Monroe got to witness the Sunday ceremony for Barack Obama’s second term, if in spirit only.

The other First Lady who appeared in pictures of today’s ceremony was the expected one. With an obvious pride as she smiled and looked up into her husband’s face as he repeated the simple oath of office, Michelle Obama then embraced and kissed the President with congratulations.

First Lady Michelle Obama beams a smile at her husband while holding the Bibles on which he took the oath for a second term, January 20, 2013.

First Lady Michelle Obama beams a smile at her husband while holding the Bibles on which he took the oath for a second term, January 20, 2013.

The President's wife kisses her husband following the swearing-in ceremony,

The President’s wife kisses her husband following the swearing-in ceremony,

The January 20, 1965 ceremony when Lady Bird Johnson began the tradition since continued of a president's spouse holding the Bible upon which the President rests his hand while swearing to preserve, protect and defend the U.S. Constitution.

The January 20, 1965 ceremony when Lady Bird Johnson began the tradition since continued of a president’s spouse holding the Bible upon which the President rests his hand while swearing to preserve, protect and defend the U.S. Constitution.

Three days ago, Michelle Obama celebrated her 49th birthday, having been born on January 17, 1964.

Just three days after her first birthday, on January 20, 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson was inaugurated to his own full term, having won the 1964 election after succeeding to the presidency on November 22, 1963, following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

And today, First Lady Obama continued a tradition which began at that previous inaugural, when First Lady Lady Bird Johnson held the Bible on which her husband took his oath of office.

Since then, Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush have also done so.

Following the Sunday swearing-in cermeony, the First Lady kicked off a Day of Service with the President.

Following the Sunday swearing-in ceremony, the First Lady kicked off a Day of Service with the President.

Following today’s private ceremony, the First Lady continued her own Inauguration Day tradition, which she began at the time of her husband’s first inaugural, using the event to mark a national Day of Service, encouraging volunteerism among thousands of citizens in Washington, D.C.

As he did during the 2009 Inauguration Day of Service, Barack Obama  joined his wife.

Tomorrow, January 21, 2013, the traditional procession of Inauguration traditions will take place: the ride from the White House to the Capitol, the public, outdoor swearing-in ceremony, the Capitol Luncheon, the walk down Pennsylvania Avenue during the return to the White House, the Inaugural Parade and the Inaugural Balls.

The President and the First Family in the Blue Room with the Chief Justice, January 20, 2013

The President and the First Family in the Blue Room with the Chief Justice, January 20, 2013 Madison’s portrait hangs at left, Jefferson’s at right

Also “witnessing” today’s ceremony were the more familiar faces of Presidents James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, whose portraits hang on the rounded walls of the oval Blue Room, in front of which Michelle Obama and First Daughters Malia Obama and Sasha Obama witnessed the brief ceremony.

Madison's Blue Room portrait.

Madison’s Blue Room portrait.

Jefferson's 1800 portrait by Rembrandt Peale in the Blue Room.

Jefferson’s 1800 portrait by Rembrandt Peale in the Blue Room.

There’s no better evidence of the progress the nation does make, over time, than the fact that the portraits of the third and fourth President represent men who were slave-owners while the President being sworn into office counted both slaves and slave-owners among his ancestors.

Today’s ceremony marked the first such event to take place in the Blue Room, and only the sixth time in history when a President of the United States was sworn into office in his official residence of the White House.

The first time was  for Rutherford Hayes, on March 3, 1877 in the Red Room, the space from which Chief Justice Roberts walked into the Blue Room for today’s brief ceremony.

The Hayes ceremony was held secretly, and created yet another trivia conundrum, since it took place a day before his term was to legally begin.

FDR's 1945 White House inauguration on the South Portico, seen here delivering his Inaugural Address.

FDR’s 1945 White House inauguration on the South Portico, seen here delivering his Inaugural Address.

The second such event took place just several feet from where Obama took his oath; on January 20, 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt was sworn in for his fourth term on the South Portico, right outside the Blue Room windows.

Truman's 1945 West Wing swearing-in ceremony.

Truman’s 1945 West Wing swearing-in ceremony.

The third time took place just two and a half months later when, upon learning of Roosevelt’s death, Vice President Harry Truman was sworn into office on April TK, 1945 in the West Wing.

The fourth and fifth times were, like the situation today, private ceremonies held because the inauguration fell on a Sunday and the President-Elect was already in residence as the President. Taking their second term oaths like Obama were Dwight D. Eisenhower on January 20, 1957 and Ronald Reagan in 1985.

The Obama family exits the Blue Room into the Green Room, followed by the Chief Justice. Mrs. Monroe stayed in place, on the wall.

The Obama family exits the Blue Room into the Green Room, followed by the Chief Justice. Mrs. Monroe stayed in place, on the wall.


Categories: Barack Obama, First Families, First Ladies, Individual Presidents, James Monroe, Presidential Inaugurations, Presidents, The Obamas

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2 replies »

  1. Interesting recap of Sunday private swearing in ceremonies, Carl. A few friendly Presidential ghosts plus a former spirited and mysterious First Lady in attendance today too. Kind of historically spooky!

    • Thanks Doug – well, I think that’s the thing about living in that house so many, many others have called home. Many people claim to have sensed the presence of ghosts there – entirely rational people. I just thought wow – who imagined old Mrs. Monroe would get bounced around the globe today as a result of the ceremony,

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