This May Be D.C.'s Weirdest Inauguration Ever. But Here Are A Few Runners-Up Abraham Lincoln snuck into D.C. in disguise, Rutherford Hayes' inauguration was held in secret, and Richard Nixon caused a pigeon massacre.
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NPR logo This May Be D.C.'s Weirdest Inauguration Ever. But Here Are A Few Runners-Up

This May Be D.C.'s Weirdest Inauguration Ever. But Here Are A Few Runners-Up

Inauguration Day in D.C. is typically a day of pomp and ... peanuts? For Jimmy Carter, in 1977, it was. Library of Congress/ hide caption

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Library of Congress/

Living in D.C. means having a front-row seat to history as it's written. Recently, that history has been a wild and sometimes scary one to witness.

Inauguration Day 2021 must be one of the strangest held in D.C.: a crowdless, socially distant, virtual ceremony; a city locked down by more than 20,000 National Guard troops; a departing president who refuses to acknowledge his resounding loss during the election and who stokes the flames of conspiracy theories.

While this may indeed be the weirdest inauguration ever, there are certainly some runners up. Taking a look back at inaugurations past gives some perspective on the tense moment now gripping the nation's capital.

Lincoln Snuck Into Washington In Disguise At Night To Avoid Assassins

If you think the nation is tearing itself apart in 2021, imagine living in Washington, D.C., at the cusp of the Civil War. Between the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860 and his inauguration in March 1861, seven states left the union.

President Abraham Lincoln's first inauguration on March 4, 1861. The Capitol dome was only partially built. Library of Congress/ hide caption

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The District — much of which was built enslaved people — was sandwiched between two slave states, Maryland and Virginia, both of which were boiling with secessionist fervor. Washington itself had been a regional center of the slave trade throughout the first half of the 19th century, with as much as one-sixth of the city's population enslaved. In 1860, Washington was still a small city of just 75,000 people, with muddy streets and poor sanitation. The Capitol dome was partially built. The Washington Monument was an ugly stump, with construction paused after donations ran out.

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"It's described as a sleepy Southern town," says Kenneth Winkle, a history professor and author of "Lincoln's Citadel: The Civil War in Washington." According to Winkle, some 70% of D.C. residents at the time were southerners. "They were very vocal in supporting secession, so there was a lot of disorder, including violence."

In fact, just days before Lincoln was to travel to Washington, a private detective uncovered a plot to assassinate the president-elect in Maryland. Lincoln was traveling to his new job by train — he didn't want the extra fuss of a military escort. A secessionist mob was planning to ambush the train in Baltimore. So, at the last minute, a scheme was arranged to secretly transfer Lincoln to an earlier train in Philadelphia.

Lincoln boarded the passenger train in public view, slumped down to conceal his height. The plan was successful, and Lincoln slipped through Baltimore before the would-be assassins reached the train station.

The journal, in shorthand, of Montgomery Meigs. Library of Congress/ hide caption

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Lincoln's inauguration was only the second to be captured by photograph. Montgomery Meigs, who was supervising the Capitol expansion at the time, photographed the event and wrote about it in his journal: "It was a noble speech," wrote Meigs in shorthand, adding that Lincoln wasted no time with platitudes. "Each sentence fell like a sledge hammer driving in the nails which maintain the states."

"[Lincoln's] first impulse was to preserve our republic," says Winkle. "He believed that without a unified government there was no hope of ending slavery in the long-run."

Rutherford Hayes Was Inaugurated In Secret, A Day After Winning The Election

The race between Joe Biden and Donald Trump was historically contentious. "Will you shut up, man?" Biden famously said to Trump during their first debate in September 2020, after constant interruption. (The Biden campaign was selling t-shirts with the phrase before the debate was over.)

The public inauguration of Rutherford Hayes on March 5, 1877. He was secretly sworn in at the White House two days earlier. Library of Congress/ hide caption

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The election of 1876 may have been just as hostile and contentious. Republican Rutherford Hayes lost the popular vote to Democrat Samuel Tilden. But the result in the electoral college was less clear: The vote was disputed in four states. In those states, two conflicting sets of electors met, sending Congress two sets of conflicting results.

One of the major themes of the election was racial justice — not unlike 2020. Tilden wanted to remove federal troops from the South, while Hayes supported keeping them there, to uphold the civil rights of newly freed African Americans.

To decide the election, a commission was created consisting of ten members of Congress and five Supreme Court justices. Voting 8-7 along party lines, they backed Hayes.

The next day, March 3, Hayes was secretly inaugurated in the Red Room of the White House, due to fear of violence. Two days later, Hayes appeared before a crowd of onlookers at the Capitol who had no idea the president-elect was actually already president, and was sworn in a second time.

FDR Was Inaugurated Four Times

If the past 4 years seem unbelievably packed with historic, unprecedented events, think of the sweep of history presided over by Franklin Roosevelt. He was first inaugurated in 1933 (the last inauguration to be held in March), with the nation in the depths of the Great Depression. By the time of his fourth inauguration, American troops where beating back Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan, in the last months of World War II.

Franklin Roosevelt spoke for just 5 minutes at his fourth inauguration in 1945. Library of Congress/ hide caption

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Roosevelt's fourth inauguration ceremony was held with about as much fanfare as a modern-day turkey pardoning — the whole thing lasted just 15 minutes. He didn't even make the usual trip down Pennsylvania Avenue, but rather, took the oath of office from the south portico of the White House.

The low-key inauguration was in part due to wartime austerity measures. But the president was also unwell — he died just three months later.

The President Who Created The EPA Caused A Pigeon Massacre Along His Parade Route

Richard Nixon will be better remembered for other offenses, but his second term did start out inauspiciously, with the death of about a dozen pigeons along the inaugural parade route. Nixon was keen to have a bird-poop-free parade, so, at his request, the inaugural committee spent roughly $13,000 on a product called Roost No More, containing the chemical polybutene. (It sounds suspiciously like the "Hugtight Sticky Glue" dreamed up by children's author Roald Dahl.)

President Nixon celebrates a poop-free inaugural in 1973. Library of Congress/ hide caption

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Roost No More is just sticky enough that it makes it unpleasant for birds to land on. But if overused, as it was in January, 1973, the product can coat birds' feathers, preventing flight.

Nixon had created the Environmental Protection Agency three years earlier, in 1970, as concern was growing over contamination of the nation's air and water by pesticides and other chemicals. Apparently, Nixon's concern about the environment didn't extend to the humble and ubiquitous avian urban dweller, the pigeon.

Lincoln Set An Example For 2021

Historian Kenneth Winkle says that of all the past inaugurations, Lincoln's in 1861 resonates most today.

There was even a mob takeover after Lincoln's election, echoing the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the Capitol.

"A paramilitary militia unit stormed the Republican headquarters in Washington, D.C.," says Winkle. "About 300 of them took over the Republican campaign headquarters and they tore down flags and banners and wrecked the furniture." After police restored order, there was a wave of arsons throughout the city.

On Inauguration Day 1861, some 2,000 troops kept order in a capital on edge (about the same number as in 2021, if you adjust for the city's population).

Despite the violence and threats against his person, Lincoln stayed focused on one thing, says Winkle: "He strove to heal wounds."

"There's no finer example for a President Biden than to consider Lincoln's thoughts and actions during his own inauguration in 1861," says Winkle. "Of course, the challenge he faced was monumentally greater, which we need to keep in mind."

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