Monroe’s Inaudible Address & a Small Ball: The 1817 Sunday Inauguration, Part 2

Monroe, last to give up the silk knee stockings of an earlier era.

Monroe, last to give up the silk knee stockings of an earlier era.

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.

Vice Presdient Tompkins.

Vice President Tompkins.

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.

Presdient Gaillard.

President Gaillard.

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.

The public expected that like his first Inauguration, Monroe's second would be held outdoors. 001

The public expected that like his first Inauguration, Monroe’s second would be held outdoors.

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.

The restored former U.S. Senate Chamber.

The restored former U.S. Senate Chamber.

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.

Secretary of State Adams.

Secretary of State Adams.

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.”

President Monroe gathered with his Cabinet,(Adams in light brown suit, second from left)  the only fellow still in knee breeches.

President Monroe gathered with his Cabinet,(Adams in light brown suit, second from left) the only fellow still in knee breeches.

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.”

President Monroe's Inauguration March.

President Monroe’s Inauguration March.

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.

Van Buren's 1833 vice presidential swearing-in ceremony in the Hall of Congress nine years after Monroe took his second presidential oath there.

Van Buren’s 1833 vice presidential swearing-in ceremony in the Hall of Congress nine years after Monroe took his second presidential oath there.

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.”

Crowds greeting Monroe at the White House for his second Inauguration.

Crowds greeting Monroe (white circle) at the White House for his second Inauguration.

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…”

Brown's Indian Queen Hotel.

Brown’s Indian Queen Hotel, site of the 1821 Inaugural Ball.

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.

Elizabeth Monroe.

Elizabeth Monroe.

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.

Eliza Monroe Hay, the assistant First Lady who could sometimes be overtly hostile to the public.

Eliza Monroe Hay, the assistant First Lady who could sometimes be overtly hostile to the public.

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):




Categories: First Daughters, First Families, First Ladies, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Presidential Inaugurations, Presidents

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6 replies »

  1. Carl: President John Gaillard, great Jeopardy question!

    Quite interesting how the President, First Lady and their daughter spoke french in public for privacy.

    I’ve been in the House and Senate galleries many times back in the 60s through 80s. Glad they were not as crowded as Monroe’s inauguration, wow!

    Great vintage dancing: loved the stockings and hoop skirts.

    Thanks, Carl. Really enjoyed that step back into Monroe’s inaudible inauguration.



    • Thanks Doug – so happy you’re enjoying the Sunday Inaugural series – but President Gaillard would have to be one of those final final super-hard Jeaopardy questions, maybe for something like a million and a half dollars, because I never knew about it until I researched it and I’ve tried to learn as much as is known about the presidency. I have a few video possibilities to insert into the Taylor story but will do it at a later date – I think words are helped along into becoming visions for readers when another sense – like sound – are provided, but it has to be just right. I have to find some dance music that would have been the sort played at the Taylor Inaugural Ball. = and thank you again for writing.

  2. I have to tell you, I came across your blog because of dogs… you write about dogs. I did not expect to be very interested in the other topics. Don’t get me wrong, I like history, but I approach it a bit differently because what I know of history came from the clothes they wore. But it has been a happy surprise that I have enjoyed all your postings.

    Anyway, I need a 12-step program for my addiction to google… what an interesting critter you are! Your blog is quite a gift you give to us all.

    • Wildegurl! You are the greatest! Even your comments have a certain buoyancy and effervescence – thank you. And to me, all that history really is are collections of “stories” of humans before us – sometimes very instructive and almost always poignant or humorous because we recognize that human nature really does not change, no matter what “clothes” people are wearing at any given time. And thank you for your kind words and observations about the website. I can’t decide whether it is more exciting to conduct the research or to arrange the words in a way which best reveal what the data tells us about these past humans. And though I have decided not to start a new website called ‘infoaddict” I have concluded that those who find that the act of knowledge discovery is addictive far better serve themselves and others with it than by perhaps being addicted to chocolate or whiskey.

  3. J. Maillard, according to a self-described historian was not technically President of the United States. But he offers no support. Here is his pithy paragraph on the subject:

    • You mean Gaillard – or Millard Fillmore? I will be amused to see the link – everyone has an opinion on this and the Atchison “presidency” at the time of the Taylor inaugural. I was being sardonic about the Gaillard Administration of one day when I wrote about it – though the South Carolinians who purport to believe he was President base it on the fact that Monroe did NOT take the official oath at the time his first term expired at noon on March 4 – whereas, for example, Wilson, Eisenhower and Reagan did take the oath, even on a Sunday, in private ceremonies.


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