Diarrhea, Drunkenness And Dead Birds: 200 Years Of Inaugural Mishaps

Jan 18, 2017
Originally published on January 18, 2017 4:07 pm

About 50 Democratic lawmakers say they will not attend the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump. Not a great start, but according to historians Ed Ayers (@edward_l_ayers) and Joanne Freeman (@jbf1755), it could be worse.

In 1857, James Buchanan was struck with a case of diarrhea before taking his oath of office. Eight years later, giving the vice presidential inaugural address, Andrew Johnson was drunk. In 1973, Richard Nixon’s second inauguration was littered with dead pigeons.

For a look into the curious mishaps of inaugural history, Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson speaks with Ayers and Freeman, co-hosts of the public radio show and podcast BackStory, which is produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

Interview Highlights

On George Washington’s inauguration

Joanne Freeman: “That was a weird moment, right, because I think always in American history when you think about the founding it feels like it was forever ago, and then you thus assume that everything that happened then of course was sort of preordained, but there had never been a president before. At the time when the American republic was starting, there were just kings. So what is a president? And what do you do to actually make a president a president? What does that ceremony look like? And nobody knew, and Washington is sort of stuck in this position where he feels hugely responsible for somehow being whatever a president is supposed to be. And apparently, based on witnesses who saw his swearing the oath and then his equivalent of an inaugural address, he was so afraid that his hands were shaking.”

On “one of the wildest presidential inaugurations ever”

JF: “[Andrew] Jackson, he was trying to make a political point. Andrew Jackson campaigned and presented himself as the president of the people, the president of the common man, and, along those lines, when he staged or planned his inauguration, he decided one of the things he would do is have basically an open house at the White House so the American people can come and celebrate his inauguration. And, of course, what happened was stampeding tens of thousands of people went to the White House and rampaged through the White House, and he had to sort of sneak out to get away. And they broke a lot of china and messed up some rugs.”

On 1861, President Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration

Ed Ayers: “He kept getting letters telling him he would be assassinated along the way, basically threatening letters, and of course there were good reasons to believe that was the case because six states had already seceded from the United States by that time. So, the big concern was he had to go through a slaveholding city, Baltimore, and that’s where the threats were greatest. So, they put him in a shawl and a cape to disguise his rather distinguished appearance and snuck him through town in the middle of night. That would haunt him for the first few months of his presidency. ‘That shows you what kind of leader he’ll be,’ critics said. ‘He’s too afraid to actually just show up in Washington for his inauguration.'”

On Andrew Johnson’s inauguration five years later

EA: “Well, he was sick, and then he was drunk. The problem was he had typhoid fever, and so, everybody knows that whiskey is good for what ails you, so he said ‘well give me a tumbler of whiskey’ and then he said ‘well give me two more,’ and then he walked into this overheated, crowded Senate chamber and had to listen to a speech and then had to give one himself. And he stood up and basically just kind of rambled like your drunk uncle. He sort of talked about how he had come up from humble origins and all of this and then people were very shocked and saddened.”

On 1857, President James Buchanan’s inauguration

JF: “Poor James Buchanan. Yeah, so, there had been in Washington, a little bit before the inauguration, what people were calling the ‘national hotel disease,’ which might have been some form of food poisoning, but there were a lot of really sick people, and, I can’t believe I’m going to say this on the radio, but there was a lot of diarrhea in Washington. And so, poor President Buchanan got sick, seemed to get well and then felt sick again for his inauguration, so he had a doctor standing by just in case things should go badly, I suppose. Not the best way to start your team of office.”

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