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  20th Presidential Inauguration (Buchanan)
Title20th Presidential Inauguration (Buchanan)
Start Date/TimeMarch 04, 1857 10:00am
End Date/TimeMarch 04, 1857 11:00pm
Last ModifiedChronicler - June 20, 2010 08:53pm
Description Overview

James Buchanan was inaugurated as the 15th President on 3/4/1857; it was the 20th presidential inauguration.

Prior Events

As was the case with most 19th century presidential inaugurations, Buchanan was hounded by office seekers at his home in the months before taking office. He took a trip to DC to visit with congressional leaders and with President Pierce, where he heard updates on the various bills pending in the lame duck session of Congress and learned the status of various Pierce administration policies [NYT 1/28/1857]. Pierce was in a state of semi-seclusion in his last month in office. At the time, a trial of the so-called "Fillibusters" was taking place in New York City; the trial involved men who had been implicated in the Walker Affair in Nicaragua, several of whom had close ties to Pierce and said that he was involved in their planning [NYT 2/10/1857].

Buchanan completed his proposed Cabinet on 2/19/1857. Once he selected a man for each post, he sent telegrams from Lancaster PA to see if they would accept, keeping the telegraph office overly busy [NYT 2/19/1857]. It appears VP-elect Breckinridge was not involved in the selections. He arrived in Philadelphia by train on 2/23, intending to go to Wheatland, but instead remained in Philadelphia until he travelled to DC for the inauguration [NYT 2/24, 3/2/1857].

Buchanan and Breckinridge arrived in Washington DC on 3/2/1857. On that bitterly cold day, Buchanan travelled through the snow to take a train from Lancaster to Columbia PA, then to Baltimore on his way to DC. A volunteer militia group named the Lancaster Fencibles accompanied him on the train. He stayed in the National Hotel, which was operated by a long time friend of his. It was a poor choice, as the Hotel's water was contaminated. Buchanan and most of the Hotel's guests contracted dystentery; Buchanan himself considered not giving his inaugural address due to the illness [John R. Bumgarner, The Health of the Presidents, p. 86]. Lewis Cass, the SOS-designee, visited Buchanan at the Hotel and re-wrote portions of the proposed inaugural, including a portion on the popular sovereignty proposal for the territories [NYT 3/5,7/1857].

President Pierce held a last public reception at the White House on his last full day in office. The Committee of the City Authorities [Washington DC] were the guests [NYT 3/4/1857].

The Inaugural Procession

A long military procession under Gen. John A. Quitman walked down the streets of Washington DC to the National Hotel. The streets were lined with people waving flags, and many houses had patriotic decorations as well. At the National Hotel, Buchanan and Pierce entered into an open carriage called a barouche, pulled by four horses. In front of them was the military procession, an unusual float with a woman dressed as the goddess of liberty on a platform drawn by six horses, a float of a naval vessel, and the Keystone Club. Behind them was an open coach with Breckinridge and a group of leading Democratic politicians. The next group of dignitaries on the procession included the diplomatic corps, some members and ex-members of Congress and the Cabinet, Governors, and veterans [NYT 3/5/1857].

The procession arrived at the Capitol around 1 p.m. The military procession formed a double line called a "haic," through which the dignitaries proceeded. The Committee of the Senate greeted Buchanan and Pierce, and they went to the office of the Vice President (then occupied by the staff of the President pro tempore) [NYT 3/5/1857].

Vice Presidential Inauguration

Once the regular session of the 34th Congress had ended, the Senate prepared for the Special Session of the 35th Congress. Dignitaries were invited into the chamber, after which the PPT administered the oath of office to 17 new Senators. VP Breckinridge entered and took the VP oath. [NYT 3/5/1857].

Buchanan and Pierce arrived just after 1:00. A political procession was formed, leading to the east front of the Capitol. The Supreme Court went first, followed by the Committee of Arrangements, Pierce and Buchanan, Breckinridge and the Secretary of the Senate, the Senate, diplomats, governors, and mayors. Buchanan had a special seat behind the platform; Pierce and the others had seats behind Buchanan, with the Supreme Court to the left and the VP and Senators to the right. Also behind the platform was George Washington Park Custis, grandson of Martha Washington by her first husband, who had attended every regular presidential inauguration since 1789; it was the last he attended [NYT 3/5/1857, McKee].

Buchanan's Inaugural

The crowds in Washington DC for Buchanan's inaugural were by far the largest in history up to that time. This was made possible by increasing affordability of railroad travel. The weather earlier had been sunny, but just after noon it became cloudy [NYT 3/7/1857]. Most people in the crowd arrived wearing black coats, forming the "sea of black coats" that was mentioned at several presidential inaugurals of the mid-19th century.

Photograph of Buchanan's inauguration, taken by John Wood, photographic draftsman of the U.S. Capitol.

Buchanan began his inaugural address by stating the text of the oath. He said "Convinced that I owe my election to the inherent love for the Constitution and the Union which still animates the hearts of the American people, let me earnestly ask their powerful support in sustaining all just measures calculated to perpetuate these, the richest political blessings which Heaven has ever bestowed upon any nation." Buchanan stated that he would not be a candidate for re-election in 1860. He called on Congress to stay out of the question of expansion of slavery into the territories, allowing those who settled in each territory to decide upon application for statehood if it wanted to be free or slave (Cass's popular sovereignty proposal). He called on everyone to "suppress" their agitation on the issue of slavery. He discussed "the duty of preserving the Government free from the taint or even the suspicion of corruption," without mentioning the ongoing "fillibuster" trial in New York City. He called for increasing the Navy and paying down of the debt. He ended with a call for a just foreign policy. Overall, the address was considered less partisan than Pierce's address in 1853 [NYT 3/5/1857].

Once Buchanan had finished his inaugural address. Chief Justice Taney administered the oath of office. The Bible used was owned by William Carroll, clerk of the Supreme Court (the same Bible was used in 1861). Buchanan then left for the White House; the Senate adjourned its special session for one day to attend Buchanan's first formal meal as President. When the presidential carriage arrived at the White House, Pierce took his leave and departed with his wife to stay with outgoing SOS William L. Marcy for the night. Buchanan entered the White House for the first time as President [NYT 3/5/1857].

Afternoon and Evening Events

Buchanan was still not feeling good after his first meal as President. He skipped other inauguration events but attended the ball. It was held in a specially constructed frame building adjoining City Hall on Judiciary Square. The building was not designed to have a decorative exterior, but the interior was painted all white, with red, white, and blue decorations. The ball began at 9 p.m., but Buchanan and Breckinridge did not arrive until 11 p.m. Pierce did not attend the ball. "Several thousand" people attended. Buchanan left around 1 a.m., but the last dance did not end until 4 a.m. [NYT 3/6,7/1857].

Adapted from Thomas H. McKee, Presidential Inaugurations from George Washington 1789 to Grover Cleveland 1893 (Washington DC: Statistical Publishing Co., 1893).

Historic Trivia

  • Buchanan was the sixth of 12 Presidents to serve a single four-year term.
  • It is thought that this was the first presidential inauguration to be photographed.
  • Buchanan was the third oldest man to be inaugurated President, behind William Henry Harrison and Ronald Reagan. At the end of his term, Buchanan was the oldest man to hold the post; he was later supplanted by Eisenhower and then by Reagan.

Popular Vote of 1856

Electoral Vote of 1856

19th Presidential Inauguration (Pierce, 1853)

21st Presidential Inauguration (Lincoln, 1861)

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