After President Washington became so ill in his first term that many feared he might die, Congress realized it needed some sort of back-up plan beyond just a Vice President. On March 1, 1792, Congress sought to forestall an occasion when the nation’s President might die, be assassinated, impeached or resign at a time when it might also have no incumbent Vice President. It passed a bill under which the president pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House would succeed to the presidency, in that order.
The first situation presenting a similar challenge was President James Monroe’s second inauguration, scheduled to take place on March 4, 1821 – the first to fall on a Sunday. He decided to honor the biblical code of conducting no business on Sunday and to be sworn-in on Monday, March 5. Like a good and loyal Vice President, Daniel Tompkins announced he would also wait until the next day.
The problem was that Monroe’s first term officially expired at noon on Sunday.
By default, it made the president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate the next man in line for the office of chief executive and gave the United States its only one-day leader, President John Gaillard, who served from noon on March 4, 1821 to noon on March 5, 1821. It was an uneventful Administration. President Gaillard did not send President Monroe out of the White House and to a hotel to spend Sunday night. No treaties were broken. No laws were signed. No scandals ensued. President Gaillard did not even realize, it seems, that he was President Gaillard. He just kept being Senator Gaillard.
On his first inauguration day in 1817, James Monroe had taken his oath of office in the elements, under the open sky on a small wood stand covered with an American flag and witnessed by the general public, who saw it as their right to witness this peaceful transition of democratic power.
The last day of the brief, shining Gaillard Administration, however, dawned in a steady downpour of freezing rain. The unrelenting inclemency showed no sign of stopping as the morning near its end. The 1821 Inaugural ceremony, it was decided hastily, would be moved indoors. It was not such a bad idea; after all, taxpayers could finally get a chance to enjoy the money spent on the new Hall of Representatives.
During the War of 1812, when British troops stormed Washington, they had not only burned and destroyed the White House but the new, small Capitol Building as well. Since then, the chambers of both the House and Senate had been done up with gold-threaded tapestry curtains, rich, red Brussels carpeting and a silk canopy overhanging the speaker’s rostrum. Members of Congress had their desks on the main floor.
In a day before the public could be enraged and amused by watching or listening in on the Internet, television, newsreels or radio, the People got to laugh or curse at Congress live, by watching them in real time from the elegant visitor’s gallery.
There was one grand but narrow staircase to ascend and descend, but rarely were there so many people in the gallery that it ever caused a ruckus.
Until the first Sunday Inauguration Day.
The crowds had shown up for Monroe’s second outdoor inaugural ceremony as it had for his first, come rain or more rain. But if there was shelter to be had, they wanted it. And so, the Public were stuffing and cramming their way into the building and clogging the single stairwell to the visitor’s gallery.
At least the swelling crowds at that end of Pennsylvania Avenue kept them from clustering at the other end. There, as Secretary of State John Quincy Adams recorded in his diary, Monroe was getting ready to leave the White House for his swearing-in ceremony: “A quarter before twelve I went to the President’s house, and the other members of the Administration immediately afterwards came there. The [District of Columbia’s Grand] Marshal and one of his deputies were there, but no assemblage of people.”
What struck Adams about Monroe was how the old boy was, well, a bit dated in his clothing style. For a President known for his high style of interior furnishings, entertainment and European manners, Monroe was, well, a bit of an old boy: “The President, attired in a full suit of black broadcloth of somewhat antiquated fashion with shoe and knee-buckles, rode in a plain carriage with four horses and a single colored footman.”
President Monroe’s close carriage proceeded to the Capitol, leading a line of other plain carriages each carrying a single Cabinet member.
Adams was struck by how there were no people lining the streets at all. It was at the Capitol Building, however, where the first hint of trouble began.
He continued, “But on alighting at the Capitol, a great crowd of people were assembled and the avenues to the hall of the House were so choked up with people pressing for admission that it was with the utmost difficulty that the President made his way through them into the House.”
The sarcastic British Minister concurred, writing of a seemingly bewildered man about to lead his nation for another four years, commenting on the “squeezing and shoving which the poor Prezzy experienced at the door.”
Monroe at all times conducted himself with upright dignity. The crowd at his ceremony did not. By the time he approached the dais to begin a very long speech in a very low voice (in those days, the speech preceded the oath-of-office), too many people had pushed their way onto the visitor’s gallery.
The room was not built to hold so many people, Henry Clay had been warning his colleagues: the floor had no structural supports and the weight of a crowd could easily cause it to collapse and kill not only citizens but Congress. Nobody listened to him. This time, he just shrugged his shoulders. Let what happen, happen.
The floor didn’t collapse, but there was some panic when the crowd came to standstill and people began to swoon with wailing and faint.
Monroe acted as if he heard nothing, and the British Minister further observed, “his speech, which was indeed rather long, was occasionally interrupted by queer sounds from the gallery.”
By the time his speech was over, many people wedged into standing and those relatively few able to get a seat were overheated while wearing their cold, wet clothes. A few fainted and those whom didn’t seemed to all nod off, roused only when the Marine Band, in its first Inauguration Day performance, struck up “Yankee Doodle.” Monroe was sworn in by Chief Justice John Marshall and then, his head held high, and headed home to the White House.
The crowds followed. “All the world was there,” a Supreme Court justice reported to his wife in a letter, “Hackney coaches, private carriages, foreign ministers and their suites were immediately in motion, and the very ground seemed beaten into powder or paste under the trampling of horses and the rolling of wheels. The scene lasted until 3 o’clock…”
After resting for a few hours, the President, First Lady Elizabeth Monroe, their married daughter Eliza Hay, who served as an assistant hostess for her mother, headed into another over-crowded scene at the Indian Queen Hotel, where the small Inaugural Ball was in full swing.
The First Family seemed to stay long enough to look at people and then leave. As Adams noted, they retired before supper” was served around and left. It may have been a secret relief for most guests.
Few felt socially confident enough to approach Mrs. Monroe or Mrs. Hay.
The family, which spoke French among themselves to keep their conversations private in public, were highly formal people whose happiest years had been spent in the imperial courts of Europe during Monroe’s long and varied diplomatic service.
The First Lady, from an aristocratic New York family who never appeared in public unless dressed in the most fashionable clothing, suffered from severe rheumatism and possibly epilepsy.
Someone did venture to ask her overtly snobbish daughter about her absent husband attorney George Hay.
Seemingly aggravated by public expectations, Mrs. Hay shot back, “He is dead. And I’ll hear nothing more about it.”
That ended that. The First Family went back to the house that would be their home for another four years.
On other earlier and happier occasions, like her wedding day and the regal parties she attended that were hosted by the nobility whom she befriended in Europe, the First Lady was known to enjoy dancing. What sort of dancing took place at what was only the second official Inaugural Ball went unrecorded, but the music and style it may have been like is suggested in this video, from a contemporary performance by the Lexington Vintage Dance Society in Lexington, Kentucky, featuring performances of the Regency Era (1800-1830):
NEXT IN THE SERIES:
WHEN IT LOOKED LIKE THE NEW PRESIDENT WAS A NO-SHOW FOR HIS SUNDAY INAUGURATION
AND JEFF DAVIS & ABE LINCOLN WERE LEFT LOOKING FOR THEIR LOST COATS
- The Double Rarity of Obama’s 2013 Sunday Second Inauguration, Part 1 of 7 (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Obama Plans Two Swearing-In Ceremonies (blogs.wsj.com)
- Obama’s second inauguration not as thrilling (wjla.com)
- Obama Accepts Unlimited Corporate Contributions for Inaugural Events; Isn’t Saying How Much (cnsnews.com)
- AT&T, Microsoft on donors list for Obama’s second inauguration, in change from 2009 (foxnews.com)
- Obama’s Jan. 21 inauguration date 7th in history (hosted.ap.org)
- Fun and Historical Facts About the 2013 Presidential Inauguration (washingtonian.com)
- Obama Inauguration Guide: Ceremonies muted in 2013 (blogs.suntimes.com)