In 1873, Ulysses S. Grant ushered in the beginning of his second term as US president by accidentally killing hundreds of canaries on Inauguration Day.
To be fair, Grant was more a victim of bad luck than an intentional practitioner of mass avian homicide. A day before the inauguration, someone on the White House staff forgot to heat the building where the celebratory ball was scheduled to be held.
By the time the mistake became evident, it was too late. “You had this situation where all of these people were wearing their long coats and overcoats, tripping over each other in the freezing cold while trying to dance. The food was completely frozen and couldn’t be eaten. The drinks were frozen. Everyone was having a lot of difficulty,” says Jim Bendat, author of Democracy’s Big Day, a book on the history of presidential inaugurations, in an interview.
A White House staffer had a plan to bring in hundreds of canaries “to chirp for the inaugural ball guests,” who at that point were desperate for any good cheer, Bendat says.
But rather than lighten the mood, the birds froze to death in minutes — an inauspicious start to what would prove a difficult second term for Grant.
“Most inaugural addresses are not very memorable”
Inauguration Day is normally a big party day in Washington, DC — one where politicians from both parties set aside their differences from the campaign trail to heal the country’s divisions with booze, dancing, and other festivities.
The inaugural speeches, by contrast, are almost always boring and dull affairs. They traffic in platitudes about bipartisanship, elevated rhetoric about the endless magnanimity of the American people, and paeans to the greatness of its military might.
“You can pretty well assume that the president, in giving the inaugural address, will go through a checklist — he’ll mention unity, will likely mention the Constitution, possibly will mention the Founding Fathers, possibly mention tradition,” Bendat said.
Bendat points out that new presidents have no incentive to say something controversial — they’ve just won office, and so their main prerogative is to try to win as much support from the broad public as possible. The way they’ve tended to do that is with ostentatious demonstrations of their compassion for the election’s losers, Bendat said, rather than anything memorable.
Some of these speeches have stood the test of time. Thomas Jefferson famously said, “We are all Federalists; we are all Republicans,” a call to bring the country together after the election of 1800 became America’s first bitterly partisan presidential race. Abraham Lincoln appealed to “the better angels of our nature” in his first inaugural in 1861, just before the Civil War broke out. FDR said in 1933 that the only thing Americans had to fear was “fear itself.”
But in general, you can expect the inaugural address to sound like most stump speeches — dry, uncontroversial, and misleading. “There are only a few really great inaugural addresses in history. Most of them are not memorable,” Bendat says.
A brief history of inaugural mishaps
But just because the inauguration speech is often boring doesn’t mean the events surrounding it are.
In our phone call, Bendat went through a series of inaugural mishaps and misfortunes since the tradition began in Lower Manhattan with George Washington in 1789. (You can read even more in his book.)
Here are a few of my favorites:
- John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural was a bit of a mess. While a Catholic cardinal was delivering the ceremonial invocation, his podium caught fire. Later, Lyndon Johnson botched the oath of office for the vice president, and Robert Frost proved unable to read a special poem he had written due to bright sunlight. “Frost never delivered the poem, and just recited a different one he knew from memory,” Bendat says.
- When Chief Justice William Howard Taft swore in President Herbert Hoover in 1929, a 13-year-old girl named Helen Terwilliger listening on the radio noticed that he had botched the wording — he had said “preserve, maintain, and defend” rather than “preserve, protect, and defend.” Terwilliger wrote a letter to Taft pointing it out, and he later publicly thanked her for catching the error.
- Vice President Calvin Coolidge was visiting his father’s cottage in rural Vermont when word came in the middle of the night from letter carriers that President Warren G. Harding had died. Since the town had no electricity and few people, Coolidge had his own father — a notary public — administer the oath in August 1923.
Correction: Due to an editing error, this text misstated the date of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural. It has been corrected.