The Worst Presidential Inaugurations, Ranked

Recent presidential installation ceremonies have been studiously planned and free of major disasters. It hasn’t always been so.

A lithograph of William Henry Harrison's inaugeration in Washington, D.C., on March 4, 1841  (Library of Congress)

With malice toward none. The only thing we have to fear. Ask what you can do for your country.

Presidential inaugurations will, at their best, inspire their audiences—not just in their respective moments, but for decades and centuries to come. But presidential inaugurations are also run by people, which means that, sometimes, they will go extremely wrong. Sometimes, it will be protests that will mar the best-planned ceremonies. Sometimes, it will be human pettiness (as when President Hoover, riding with Franklin Roosevelt in the motorcade to the Capitol in 1932, seems to have ignored Roosevelt’s attempts at conversation, instead staring stone-faced into the distance). Sometimes, however, inaugural exercises will encounter disasters of a more epic strain: storms, illness, death, extremely pungent cheese.

With that in mind, here are some of the worst inaugurations in history, ranked in order from the mildly to the egregiously disastrous.

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7. John Adams, 1797

Adams is the least disastrous on this list because nothing overtly awful befell his installation as the second U.S. president. In fact, you can make a very good case—and many have—that Adams’s inauguration was one of the most pivotal moments in American history: Washington having left office after his second term was up, the installation of Adams was a demonstration of the new country’s commitment to a peaceful transition of power. It was in that sense a model of American democracy that would be emulated, with varying degrees of success, by other countries, and that should also place Adams’s inauguration on any best-inaugurations list you might want to make.

On a human level, however, the inauguration was a decidedly sad affair—especially if you happened to have the mixed blessing to be, during the ceremony that would install John Adams as president, John Adams himself. Washington exited office just as beloved as he had been when he entered it, and Americans of the time were, just as their descendants would be, extremely adept at expressing their opinions. Adams’s inauguration was thus less of a welcome to the founder and more of a farewell ceremony to Washington. After Adams took his oath, the triumphant new president was greeted with people weeping—not of joy, but of sadness.

6. George W. Bush, 2001

This one makes the list through no fault of Bush himself, but rather because of the antics of his administration’s predecessor. Bill Clinton’s staff, still angry about the Supreme Court-decided outcome of the 2000 campaign, decided to leave their successors a West Wing that doubled as a kind of bureaucratic fun house. They smeared glue on desk drawers. They rerouted the White House phone lines (in one particularly egregious rewiring, they saw to it that calls to the new chief of staff would be directed to a phone in the closet). And, according to a report on the matter from the General Accounting Office, “messages disparaging President Bush were left on signs and in telephone voice mail.” (The New York Times, in its summary of that report, added: “A few of the messages used profane or obscene language.”)

While pranks pulled from one administration to the next are typical—Clinton staffers faced similar antics from George H.W. Bush’s outgoing staff—the ones lobbed by Clinton’s team took things a step further. (As Representative Bob Barr, Republican of Georgia—and a harsh critic of Clinton’s—told the Times: “The Clinton administration treated the White House worse than college freshmen checking out of their dorm rooms.”) The GAO estimated the cost of repairs for the damage to be between $13,000 and $14,000. Nearly $5,000 of that was dedicated to replacing the White House’s computer keyboards—from which Clinton staffers had systematically removed the “W” keys.

5. William Taft, 1909

Taft was installed when presidential inaugurations were still held in March. Despite the spring-ish timing, though, Taft’s inauguration coincided with a blizzard that covered Washington in 10 inches of snow. That in itself wasn’t too much of a problem—Taft simply took his oath of office, as Reagan would decades later, in the Senate chamber. The issue, really, was the parade that followed the oath itself. The blizzard’s winds had toppled both trees and telephone poles; trains were stalled; streets were blocked.

Still, the festivities carried on, despite 1909’s technological constraints. City workers—some 6,000 men, with 500 wagons—worked through the night to clear the parade path. In the end, the workers cleared 58,000 tons of snow from the parade route so that Taft’s carriage could pass with an appropriate amount of pomp.

Taft, for his part, bore this all with good humor. As he would later joke: “I always knew it would be a cold day in hell when I became president.”
William Taft and Theodore Roosevelt drive to the Capitol for Taft’s presidential inauguration ceremony on March 4, 1909. (George Grantham Bain Collection / Library of Congress)

4. James Buchanan, 1857

The presidency of the man many historians deem to be one of the, if not the, worst in American history began in a manner that was appropriately plagued. Before his inauguration, the soon-to-be President Buchanan stayed, along with several of Washington’s luminaries, at the National Hotel, the largest in the city. The hotel ended up being the epicenter of an outbreak of a mysterious illness. The breakout (which would come to be known as the National Hotel disease) sickened, according to some contemporary accounts, 400 people, and claimed 36 lives, including those of three congressmen.

The new president wasn’t immune from the illness: He was twice infected by it. Rumors—aided in their circulation by sensationalistic newspapers—spread that the victims of National Hotel disease had been poisoned by arsenic, and that the poisoning was the result of a botched assassination attempt on Buchanan (once called a “northern man with southern principles”) by radical abolitionists. “From every quarter of the country come in denunciations of what is styled—not without warrant,” the New York Times declared, “the determination on the part of interested parties to stifle inquiry and hoodwink suspicion concerning what has every appearance of being the most gigantic and startling crime of the age.”

Historians now think the outbreak was dysentery—a result not of conspiracy, but of the hotel’s primitive sewage system. And Buchanan himself was fortunate to have survived it. Less fortunate, however, was the nation he led once he recovered: Many historians regard his failure to treat the threat of civil war seriously as “the worst presidential mistake ever made.”

3. Andrew Johnson, 1865

To be clear, the disaster is Johnson’s inauguration not as president, but as vice president for Abraham Lincoln for Lincoln’s second term. How did Johnson steal the show before Lincoln delivered the inaugural address that would come to be remembered as the best in U.S. history?

Booze. Well, booze and bad luck. Johnson, when he arrived in Washington to take the oath of office, was recovering from a bout of typhoid fever. In an (apparent) attempt to self-medicate, he spent inauguration eve drinking. Come inauguration day itself, he was, unsurprisingly, hungover. And he had the misfortune of living during a time before IV-driven hangover “cures.”

So? Johnson hair-of-the-dogged. He drank, apparently, three tumblers of whiskey in his attempt to chase away the effects of the evening before. Unsurprisingly, this backfired—to the extent that, when he came to the Senate chamber to deliver his own inaugural speech, he bombed. His speech was long and rambling and angry, attesting to his “humble origins and his triumph over the rebel aristocracy.” And “in the shocked and silent audience,” according to a Senate history of the matter, “President Abraham Lincoln showed an expression of ‘unutterable sorrow,’ while Senator Charles Sumner covered his face with his hands.”

Johnson was so drunk and confused that, after he finally did sit down, he was unable to perform the day’s ceremonial task: to swear in the nation’s new senators.

Some suggested, ironically, impeachment. Lincoln, however, supported his new vice president. “It has been a severe lesson for Andy,” he said. “But I do not think he will do it again.”

2. Andrew Jackson, 1829

Jackson’s inauguration on the one hand belongs on a Best Inaugurations of All Time list, and for roughly the same reason that it makes this Worst-Of list: the massive party that followed the inauguration itself. Jackson, true to his campaign’s populist messaging, was the first president to take the oath of office in a public ceremony—one that took place outside the Capitol. A crowd of some 20,000 appeared to see him do it.

But oaths are short, and Jackie Evancho had not yet been born. What is a crowd of 20,000 to do to entertain themselves once the ceremony has ended? They made their way to the White House—where, even before Jackson came along, it was customary to have a post-inauguration reception to which people could come and shake the hand of the new president, perhaps have a glass of orange juice or a piece of cheese.

What wasn’t customary was the crowds. In the rough manner of those parties in sitcoms that kids throw when their parents are out of town, things soon got out of control. Guests’ shoes muddied the White House carpets. Soon, the crowd got rowdier. They began looting rooms. They began breaking dishes. One representative from South Carolina wrote the next day to Martin Van Buren, describing the events and dubbing the party a “Saturnalia.” The rooms of the White House would smell like the cheese that fallen onto and then been ground into the carpets for months afterward.

From the event meant to celebrate him and his presidency, Jackson had to escape, with the help of aides, through a window in the back of the White House. As for ending a party before the invention of electricity would allow you to simply turn the lights on? According to the Constitution Center, Antoine Michel Giusta, the White House steward, finally realized that the best way to get the drunken mob out of the White House was to take away its booze. Giusta moved the punch bowl outside, according to one report. “Other reports,” the Center notes, “indicated that staffers passed punch and ice cream through the White House’s windows to the crowd outside.”

To make matters worse? The wives of Jackson’s cabinet members got into a loud argument during his inaugural ball, occasioned by two of the women mean-girl-ing a third because they deemed her social standing too low and her moral standing unfit for the role of a cabinet wife. The event and its radiating effects would haunt Jackson’s entire first term, and would lead to the resignation of several of his cabinet members—including one Martin Van Buren.

Robert Cruikshank’s “President's Levee, or All Creation Going to the White House,” depicts the crowd in front of the White House following Andrew Jackson's first inaugural reception in 1829. (Library of Congress)

1. William Henry Harrison, 1841

First, Harrison delivered what was, by most accounts from listeners, a terrible, rambling speech—about Rome, about the great scope of history. It was, at 8,445 words, the longest inaugural address in history. But also: The 68-year-old delivered that speech in the cold, without a coat or a hat. He followed it up by attending a parade and then three different inaugural balls.  That speech killed him. Harrison died a month after the inauguration, of pneumonia and pleurisy.