On 21 January 2013, the United States of America will hold its 57th Presidential Inauguration Ceremony. (The date mandated in the twentieth constitutional amendment of 1933 is 20 January, unless that date falls on a Sunday.) And since the United States is not Camelot, the important day is subject to the same variability of weather as any other date; and the sun has not always shone on the new American President, at least on that day.
Prior to 1937 — the next inauguration after the 20th Amendment had passed — the presidential term began on 4 March unless it was a Sunday. (Lore has it that this date was chosen as it fell on a Sunday the least often.) From 1793 to 1933, the date was 4 March, though the Constitution at that time mandated no specific date. (George Washington took the first oath of office on 30 April 1789.) This date, well after Election Day, was initially chosen to give elected officials time to reach the US Capitol. With improved transportation across the nation, the March date left the country with a lame duck President for over three months. (The new Congress had begun its new session in December or January after the election.)
When the date was finally changed to a more reasonable January date, the choice of date was made by looking at the climatological record for Washington DC, which suggested 20 January would, on average, be less likely to be stormy. (Which we shall see was not the case in 1937.)
According to the US National Weather Service office for the Washington area — all outdoor inaugurals have been held with Washington as the nation's capitol — the average weather conditions for 20 January are as follows:
Normal Weather for January Inauguration
Normal high temperature for the day is 43°F (6.1°C).
Normal low temperature for the day is in the upper 28°F (-2.2°C)
Normal weather for 12 pm EST is a temperature of 37°F (2.8°C), partly cloudy skies, 10 mph wind and a wind chill of 31°F (-0.6°C).
There is about a 1 in 3 chance of measurable precipitation (i.e., at least 0.01 inches / 0.2 mm) on that day and a 1 in 6 chance of precipitation during the ceremony.
There is only about a 1 in 10 chance of measurable snow (i.e., at least 0.1 inches / 0.2 cm) on that day and a 1 in 20 chance of snow during the ceremony.
There is about a 1 in 6 chance that there will be at least 1 inch (2.5 cm) of snow already on the ground from a previous snowfall.
With either date, the weather for the Presidential Inauguration has been quite variable over the 224 years since Washington took the Oath of Office. I now take a look back at the Inauguration Days and focus on some of the more interesting.
The Early Years: 1789 -1813
The US Constitution is a very tight document, and few words spell out the government's structure. As such, America has built on tradition and precedent for its ceremonies and protocols, many set in those first formative years. As to the inauguration of the President, the Constitution only requires an oath of office. The remainder of the pomp and ceremony for the taking of the presidential oath of office that we will see on 21 January will have sprung from over two centuries of tradition.
When the last Congress under the Articles of Confederation set early March 1789 for the first vote of the Electoral College and swearing in of the first president, they had not planned on bad weather. The first months of 1789 were reported to have been unseasonably cold and snowy across the nation. As a result, the weather weather conditions delayed many members of the new Federal Congress from arriving in New York City, the first capitol, on time. It was nearly a month before a quorum could assemble and elect George Washington as the first president. Informed of his election, Washington headed to New York from his Mt Vernon, Virginia home. He took the first oath of office on the balcony of Federal Hall at the end of that month on 30 April 1789.
Oil painting of George Washington's inauguration as the first President of the United States: April 30, 1789.
For the first seven inaugurations, the oath of office was administered indoors. Though no official weather records were kept at that time, accounts of the weather on these indoor inaugurations spoke of generally mild and dry weather, although the day preceding James Madison's first swearing-in was rainy.
First Outdoor Inaugurations 1817-53
James Monroe was the first American President to take the oath of office outdoors, doing so on a warm and sunny midday in 1817. His second inaugural in 1821 was not so fortunate. According to reports, snow began on Saturday 3 March and continued through Monday 5 March when the inauguration was to be held. (With a few exceptions, if the usual Inauguration Day falls on a Sunday, as will be the case in 2013, it is held on the following Monday.) The snow and estimated 28°F (-2.2°C) temperature forced the ceremony indoors to the House of Representatives Chamber. Future president John Quincy Adams noted in his diary that it rained on 4 March and snowed on the 5th. He also provided the temperature reading. (Official weather records did not begin until 1871.)
Presidents James Monroe (left) and William Henry Harrison Courtesy The White House
The term of John Quincy Adams in 2825 began wet with a measurement by the President himself of 0.79 inches (20 mm) of rainfall. The inaugurals of Andrew Jackson (1829 and 1833) and Martin Van Buren (1837) were uneventful with respect to weather. The next would be fateful.
When William Henry Harrison took his oath of office in 1841, the Washington weather was cloudy and windy, a raw day, with midday temperatures likely in the mid to upper 40s°F (around 4°C). Harrison rode to the ceremony without hat or heavy coat and then gave the longest inaugural address on record, the speech lasted around 100 minutes. Harrison caught a cold that day and it was to lead to a deterioration in his health. According to weather historian Patrick Hughes, several days later, Harrison had gone out one morning and was caught in the pouring rain, which soaked him to the skin. He returned to the chilly White House and worked all day in his wet clothes. Harrison's cold developed into pneumonia. He died one month to the day after his inauguration, the first US President to die in office.
Wet weather characterized the next three Inaugurations. Rain and thunderstorms greeted James Polk (1845), and he took his oath beneath an umbrella in a downpour. Zachary Taylor' s 1849 Inaugural took place under snow flurries which turned into heavy snow by evening.
Inauguration of Franklin Pierce: 4 March 1853 Source: The Weather of Inauguration Day by Patrick Hughes, ESSA, Environmental Data Services, 1968.
The Inaugural for Franklin Pierce in 1853 occurred on a snowy and windy day, and the snow fell heavily as he read his Inaugural Address, causing much of the crowd to disperse and the inaugural parade to be canceled. The outgoing First Lady Abigail Fillmore sat through the ceremony and caught cold in the wet and cold conditions. Like Harrison, she developed pneumonia soon thereafter and was dead within the month.
Precipitation ruled most of the Inaugurations during this period. The exceptions being that of James Buchanan (1857) and Rutherford B. Hayes (1877). Abraham Lincoln's two inauguration days (1861 and 1865) began on a wet note but turned sunny and mild in the afternoon. For his second, the rain had lasted for two days and ended at the ceremony's start, leaving a deep yellow mud around the Capitol. Rain characterized Ulysses S Grant's first inauguration in 1869, but his second had a quite different character.
The morning of Grant's second Inauguration in 1873 dawned bitterly cold and windy. The low temperature had fallen to 4°F (-15.5°C), a record for the day that still stands, with a windchill temperature estimated at -15°F (-26.1°C). The temperature at noon when the oath was administered stood at a numbing 16°F (-8.9°C), the coldest ever until the Inauguration of Ronald Reagan in January 1985. The wind, estimated to be blowing at around 40 mph (64 km/h), muffled Grant's words as he gave his Inaugural Address. The inaugural ball, where guests danced wearing heavy overcoats, was held in a temporary, unheated building. The gala was halted at midnight because of the cold.
Weather Map for Inauguration Day of Ulysses S Grant: 4 March 1873
The remaining Inauguration Day in this period, that of James A. Garfield (1881), saw snow falling with temperatures near freezing. The snow had fallen heavily all night leaving deep drifts over Washington streets as crews worked feverishly to keep Pennsylvania Avenue clear. The snow ruined the festive decorations, and the combination of snow and the strong winds that blew during the ceremony left the spectator stands nearly empty. Seats that were priced at $5 were selling for a tenth that ... when they could find a taker.
During this period, only the first term inaugurations of Grover Cleveland (1885) and William McKinley (1897)were sunny and clear.
took his 1889 oath of office beneath an umbrella as heavy rain fell and gave his inaugural address in weather so inclement that it forced even his wife and daughter indoors. The heavy rain and plethora of umbrellas drowned out his address to the few spectators who continued to brave the nasty weather. Harrison, however, continued to remain outdoors through the inaugural parade though few others did. The day's rainfall was measured at 0.86 inches (21.8 mm).
Weather Map for Inauguration Day of Benjamin Harrison: 4 March 1889
An ironic note to Harrison's inauguration, Benjamin was the grandson of President William Henry Harrison. And like his grandfather, Benjamin took the oath and delivered his address under the very inclement weather conditions. Fortunately, his fate was different than his unlucky grandfather, and he lived to finish his elected term. As Patrick Hughes noted in his article The Weather on Inauguration Day, Harrison did take extra precautions, wearing a special leather shirt under his outerwear to keep him dry.
Snow greeted Cleveland's second term in 1893 with accumulation of one to two inches (2.5 to 5 cm) following a night of rain. With the passage of a cold front, strong, biting northwesterly winds blew. Accounts say that Cleveland's mustache sported tiny icicles, a condition I like to call winter pearls, as he clutched his top hat against the wind.
The Last March Inaugurations 1901-1933
From the start of the Twentieth Century to the change in inauguration date, Presidential Inaugurations occurred under a mixed bag of weather conditions. Theodore Roosevelt (1903), Warren G. Harding (1921) and Calvin Coolidge (1925) had sunny days. Woodrow Wilson (1913 and 1917) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933) had dry but mostly cloudy days. Herbert Hoover's inaugural saw rain falling intermittently during the ceremony. Conditions for William McKinley (1901) and William Howard Taft (1909) sported even more inclement weather.
McKinley's second inaugural in 1901 saw rain beginning during the swearing-in and continuing though the afternoon. The bad weather would force cancellation of the evening fireworks display.
The Inauguration of William Howard Taft in 1909, was described by one eyewitness as “The worst weather on the face of the earth.” The day began with heavy snow that accumulated to 9.8 inches (25 cm) and strong winds that set the snow drifting and blew down trees and telephone poles and brought traffic to a halt. By the start of the ceremonies, 10.5 inches (2.7cm) had accumulated. It took a cadre of 6000 shovelers to clear away the estimated 58,000 tons of slush and snow from the parade route. The inclement weather forced the swearing in ceremony indoors to the Senate Chamber. The snow stopped just in time for the parade, but its 20,000 marchers marched on through howling winds, while Taft and his wife watched from the reviewing stand outside the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Inauguration of William Howard Taft: 4 March 1909
Though the temperature (around the freezing mark) was not as cold as the Grant inauguration of 1873, the wind made the day feel extremely cold. The conditions caused Taft to remark: “I knew it would be a cold day when I was made president.” The Washington Post called the day "most unpropitious."
Weather Map for Inauguration Day of William Howard Taft : 4 March 1909
The First January Inauguration Days 1937-1961
With the shift in the Inauguration Day from early March to mid-January in 1937, many believed it would be plagued with foul weather. And for the first inauguration held on that date, it definitely was. The second inauguration for Franklin D. Roosevelt was held on the wettest 20 January day in Washington DC history with an accumulation of 1.77 inches (45 mm) of rain, sleet and freezing rain, of which nearly 0.75 inches (19 mm) fell between 11 am and 1 pm EST. with the temperature hovering around the freezing mark. The downpour was so great that around a half an inch (1.25 cm) of water accumulated on the floorboards of the open-air presidential car as the Roosevelts journeyed from the White House to the Capitol. Following the official swearing-in ceremony, the Roosevelts stood for an hour and a half in an exposed reviewing stand as the parade passed them in review.
Weather Map for Inauguration Day of Franklin D. Roosevelt: 4 March 1937
Weather historian David M. Ludlam reported that Nebraska Senator George W Norris, one of those who had pushed for the 20th Amendment date change, later remarked: "They're trying to blame this one [the awful weather conditions] on me. You can't charge this up to me until March 4 when you see what kind of day that is." To bad, Senator Norris, the weather on the old inauguration date in 1937 was a sunny 67°F (19.4°C).
Roosevelt's following two inaugurations (1941 and 1945) were no warmer but in 1941 there was sun with brisk winds with a noontime temperature of 29°F (-1.7°C) that drove the windchill down to -10F (25C). The 1945 inaugural saw morning snow that ended before the ceremonies with temperature at noon of 35°F (1.7°C).
The inaugurations of Harry S Truman (1949) and Dwight D Eisenhower (1953 and 1957) were nondescript weatherwise, although light snow fell on the morning of Eisenhower's second.
Bad weather prior to the inauguration of John F Kennedy gave an auspicious start to his presidency. Heavy snow from a nor'easter during the early morning hours left 8 inches (20 cm) on the ground and in its wake, the wind gave a bite to the 22°F (-5.6°C) noon temperature (a windchill of 7F (-14C)), the coldest so far for the January date. The snow was so bad that it cause traffic chaos in the city with thousands of cars abandoned in the streets that morning.
Weather Map for Inauguration Day of John F Kennedy: 20 January 1961
The day began ominously and continued so through the ceremony. The snow almost canceled the inaugural parade and other outdoor events until the US Army was put in charge of clearing the streets, using flame-throwers to clear Pennsylvania Avenue. Former president Herbert Hoover missed the swearing-in ceremony because he couldn't fly into Washington. A small electrical fire in the podium sent smoke into the air as Cardinal Richard Cushing gave the invocation. Then, one of the iconic moments of the inauguration ceremony arose when the poet Robert Frost struggled to read his new poem "Dedication" in the bright sunlight and gusty winds that prevailed. Few knew at the time that the 86-year-old Frost gave up trying to read the typed text and instead recited another work "The Gift Outright" from memory. The chill was forgotten as Kennedy gave one of the most memorable inaugural addresses in recent history.
Inauguration Days 1965-1989
A mixed bag of weather accompanied the presidential inaugurals from 1965 to 1989. Lyndon B. Johnson (1965) and Richard Nixon (1969 and 1973) inaugurals were held under cloudy skies with an inch (2.5 cm) of snow on the ground for Johnson, and rain and sleet following Nixon's first taking of the oath. During the cold winter of 1976-77, the 1977 inauguration of Jimmy Carter was the second coldest to date for January inaugurals at 28°F (-2.2°C) with a chilly wind. The first inaugural of Ronald Reagan (1981) and that of George Bush (1989) were the two mildest for the new date. with temperatures above 50°F (10°C).
The most noteworthy inaugural during the period with regard to weather, however, was Reagan's second inauguration on 21 January 1985. For his first, Reagan had enjoyed the warmest inaugural in January with a temperature of 55°F (12.8°C) at noon, the second warmest since the event went outdoors in 1817 (Andrew Jackson's first inauguration was estimated at 57°F (13.9°C) and officially Woodrow Wilson's first inaugural was held under a measured 55°F (12.8°C) temperature.). His second, however, would be the coldest with an air temperature of 7°F (-13.9°C) and windchill in the -10 to -20 F (-23 to -29 C) range at the time of the ceremony. The morning low had been -4°F (-20°C).
Weather Map for Inauguration Day of Ronald Reagan: 21 January 1985
A trivia note; Reagan's first inauguration temperature of 55°F (12.8°C) was the warmest official day for the January Inaugurals. Officially, Wilson had an inauguration under the same temperature, and although Jackson's may have been warmer, official weather records did not begin until 1871. But the warmest day for a president to take the oath of office belongs to Gerald Ford, who never had an inauguration day, but became president when Richard Nixon resigned on 9 August 1974. The temperature that day peaked at 89°F (31.7°C).
Recent Inauguration Days 1993-2009
The two inaugurations of William Clinton (1993 and 1997) had mostly sunny and pleasant weather, a high overcast and slightly cooler temperatures greeting the second. For George W Bush, the two inaugurals (2001 and 2005) saw temperatures in the mid-30s°F (around 3°C). The former was characterized by rain —an inch (25 mm) the previous day and more on Inauguration Day that later changed to snow — and fog. The latter was windy with snow on the ground. The term of Barack Obama in 2009 began with the third chilliest January inaugural at 28°F (-2.2°C) made colder by gusty winds that sent the windchill down to the mid teens F (around 9 C).
Weather Map for Inauguration Day of George W Bush: 20 January 2001
And for 2013?
As I write this a month prior to the 21 January Inauguration Day for Barack Obama, an exact forecast cannot be made for its weather. Given the trend over the early days of the Winter of 2012-13, I would speculate that a relatively warm, and likely dry day may be in order. But only time will tell.
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