Americans Love a Parade: The History of Presidential Inaugural Parades
by Geri Zabela Eddins
• President Washington Parades to the First Inauguration
• Spontaneous Parades Make Way for Officially Planned Processions
• Modern Traditions
• Historic Moments Along the Parade Route
• Read More
• Reference Sources
President Washington Parades to the First Inauguration
Upon learning that his election as president was official, George Washington traveled leisurely over a period of seven days from his home at Mount Vernon to the country’s temporary capital in New York City, riding on horseback through Alexandria, Georgetown, Washington, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Throngs of enthusiastic crowds cheered Washington along the many miles of his journey and treated him like royalty, crowning him with laurel wreaths, hosting banquets in his honor, and saluting him with cannon fire. Loyal members of local militias joined Washington’s procession to New York in increasing numbers as if they were following an irresistible piper. Members of the Continental Army, legislators, political leaders, and ordinary American citizens who were gathered in New York for the inauguration on April 30, 1789, also joined Washington’s “parade” as he left in a carriage from the home of Governor George Clinton, where he had stayed, to the steps of Federal Hall for the ceremony. The admiring crowds swarmed Washington a third time after he finished his inaugural address and accompanied him as he walked to a prayer service at St. Paul’s Chapel. In subsequent years impromptu parades of supporters also escorted John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to their inaugurations.
Spontaneous Parades Make Way for Officially Planned Processions
Although Thomas Jefferson was the first president to be inaugurated in the new capital of Washington, D.C., he preferred a more subdued atmosphere for his ceremony than the pageantry and splendor of Washington’s inauguration. He therefore chose to walk with a few friends from his hotel to the Capitol. After swearing the oath and delivering his inaugural address, Jefferson walked back to his hotel and ate dinner. Following his second inaugural ceremony in 1805, Jefferson rode from the Capitol to the White House on horseback and was accompanied by several hundred well wishers that included mechanics from the nearby navy yard, Congressmen, and diplomats. The Marine Band also joined the parade and played patriotic music as they marched.
Inaugural parades continued to be spontaneous, unplanned events until the inauguration of James Madison in 1809. An official parade that included a cavalry unit from Georgetown was organized to escort Madison to the Capitol. The officially planned inaugural parades continued to precede the inaugural ceremony until 1873. In the waning years of the nineteenth century, however, the inaugural parade had transformed into a much grander and more time-consuming event involving thousands of participants. So it was decided that the parade would no longer precede the inaugural ceremony, but follow it as a grand-scale public celebration.
Today’s inaugural parade continues to follow the inaugural ceremony and serves as a two-hour celebration that is not only enjoyed by the thousands of people lining the streets of Washington, but also the millions watching on television. After the newly sworn-in administration enjoys lunch in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, the parade begins! The president and his or her spouse lead the way down Pennsylvania Avenue, followed by the Vice President and his or her spouse, all the way to the White House. Most presidents choose to ride in a limousine but may stop at certain points along the way, leave the car, and greet the cheering supporters. Once the president and vice president arrive at the White House, they and their spouses join special guests in the reviewing stand, a special viewing section constructed specifically for each inaugural parade and designed for both comfort and safety. Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, each reviewing stand has been encased in bullet-proof glass to ensure the president is safe.
From the reviewing stand, the country’s new administration enjoys the remainder of the parade—a grand, festive spectacle that features thousands of marchers—military and high school marching bands playing patriotic music, tumbling cheerleaders, proud citizens’ groups, and military regiments representing all branches of the armed forces. Elaborately decorated floats celebrating American life in all fifty states also delight the crowds. The record for the most number of marchers in an inaugural parade was set in 1913 for the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson. Over 40,000 people participated in that parade. The parade celebrating Dwight Eisenhower’s inauguration, however, holds the record for the longest. Those who watched the entirety of Eisenhower’s parade stood for four hours and thirty-nine minutes!
With the COVID-19 pandemic killing thousands of Americans a day, the Presidential Inaugural Committee is orchestrating major changes to the 2021 inauguration celebrations for Joe Biden. To ensure the health and safety of all, the celebration will feature the first “Virtual Parade Across America” instead of the traditional parade that typically attracts hundreds of thousands. The virtual parade will include video of the new president, vice president, and their families processing to the White House, as well as musical acts, poets, dance troupes, and other entertainers from different states. Inaugural planners note, “The parade will celebrate America’s heroes, highlight Americans from all walks of life in different states and regions, and reflect the country’s diversity, heritage, and resilience.” The virtual parade will be broadcast on TV and the internet to ensure all Americans are able to view it.
Historic Moments Along the Parade Route
- From the moment Washington journeyed from his home at Mount Vernon escorted by enthusiastic supporters to his inauguration, the American people have honored their new presidents with festive parades. Many parades have included marchers and floats that revealed significant aspects of the new president’s life or issues of concern for the time.
- Thomas Jefferson walked to and from his first inaugural ceremony in 1801, but chose to ride on horseback from the Capitol to the White House after being sworn in for his second inauguration in 1805. Jefferson was the only president who ever walked to and from an inaugural ceremony.
- The first full-scale parade accompanied Andrew Jackson from the Capitol to the White House in 1829. Jackson’s parade was followed by a public reception at the White House, which was celebrated by a famously rowdy crowd of thousands that destroyed many of the interior furnishings. In later years the parade replaced public receptions as the primary public celebration.
- Floats were used for the first time in Martin Van Buren’s inaugural parade in 1837.
- Over the years parades became increasingly longer, and the parade that celebrated Zachary Taylor’s inauguration in 1849 was so long that it took one hour to pass any one point along the parade route.
- A reproduction of the U.S.S. Constitution was crafted as a float for James Buchanan’s 1857 inaugural parade.
- In 1861 the parade for Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration included a number of floats, including one decorated in red, white, and blue that transported thirty-four young girls who represented each of the current states. All thirty-four of the girls attended a reception later that day and surrounded Lincoln, who picked up and kissed every single one of them!
- Native Americans and African Americans participated in the inaugural parade for the first time in 1865 for Lincoln’s second inauguration. The African Americans who marched represented civilian organizations, as well as a military battalion.
- In 1869 the inaugural parade for Ulysses S. Grant included eight military divisions.
- Prior to 1873 the inaugural parade and the president-elect’s procession to the Capitol were the same event. However, that changed for Grant’s second inauguration when the official inaugural parade became a new event that followed the inaugural ceremony.
- The year 1877 witnessed the country’s first hotly disputed election. Rutherford Hayes was declared the presidential winner just two days before the scheduled inauguration. Hayes was sworn in as president in a secret ceremony held in the White House that evening, just two days before the official inauguration at the Capitol. Because there was no time for advance planning, Hayes was escorted to the White House in a last-minute torchlight parade.
- The first parade reviewing stand in front of the White House was built for James Garfield’s inaugural parade in 1881.
- In 1897 William McKinley sat in the first glass-enclosed reviewing stand.
- Theodore Roosevelt set a new standard for inaugural parades in 1905. Nearly 35,000 people marched, including cowboys, Pennsylvania coal miners, and his Rough Riders (members of Roosevelt’s cavalry unit during the Spanish-American War) on horseback.
- William Taft was the first president whose wife rode with him from the Capitol to the White House.
- Women participated in the inaugural parade for the first time at Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration in 1917.
- Warren Harding was the first president to ride to and from the Capitol in a car.
- Airplanes first made a parade appearance in Herbert Hoover’s 1929 inaugural parade.
- The 1953 inaugural parade for Dwight Eisenhower was the longest parade ever held. The procession went on for ten miles, and the approximately 750,000 bystanders who witnessed the whole parade had to stand four hours and thirty-nine minutes to see its entirety. The parade featured numerous floats portraying scenes from Eisenhower’s life and a live turtle waving the American flag with its front legs. Eisenhower had even agreed to be lassoed by the television cowboy Monte Montana, a stunt which did not endear him to the Secret Service.
- Because snow blanketed the ground for John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, army flame throwers were used to melt the snow off Pennsylvania Avenue so the parade could be held. Over 32,000 people marched in this parade. The parade included a PT (patrol torpedo) boat in honor of Kennedy’s war service, as well as nuclear missiles transported atop trucks.
- Protestors first appeared at an inaugural parade in 1969. Hundreds of citizens who condemned the Vietnam War burned small American flags and chanted protests such as “Four more years of death” at Richard Nixon’s inaugural parade.
- Following the inaugural luncheon in 1977, Jimmy Carter and his wife entered the limousine for the parade, but then decided they would walk instead. Carter and his wife thus became the only president and first lady to walk the entire one and a half miles from the Capitol to the White House. However, in subsequent years George and Barbara Bush, Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. and Laura Bush, Barack and Michelle Obama, and Donald and Melania Trump all chose to walk part of the parade route from the Capitol.
- Protestors were granted permits and allocated space along the parade route for the first time during George W. Bush’s 2001 inaugural parade. Bush had won the Electoral College but not the popular vote in a hotly contested election, leaving many Americans furious over the election results. Thousands chose to assert their displeasure by hoisting posters at the parade proclaiming “Hail to the Thief” and “Supreme Injustice.” History repeated itself in 2016 when Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but lost the Electoral College to Donald Trump. Again thousands of protestors took to the streets on Inauguration Day near the parade route to voice their outrage. Most protestors demonstrated peacefully with signs and chants, but some resorted to vandalism, resulting in over two hundred arrests.
- Read an expanded list of precedents and historic inaugural events at: lcweb2.loc.gov.
- Read a history of the inaugural parade and other inaugural events on the U.S. Senate website.
Angelo, Bonnie. First Families: The Impact of the White House on Their Lives. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.
Bendat, Jim. Democracy’s Big Day: The Inauguration of our President 1789-2009. New York: iUniverse Star, 2008.
Hess, Stephen. What Do We Do Now? A Workbook for the President-Elect. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2008.
Santella, Andrew. U.S. Presidential Inaugurations. New York: Children’s Press, 2002.
Wagner, Heather Lehr. The Presidency. New York: Chelsea House, 2007.
Editor’s Note: Website links listed in angle brackets are no longer available. References with no links are fee-based encyclopedia sites.
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“Joe Biden to get ‘presidential escort’ to White House, virtual parade instead of traditional inaugural festivities.” 4 January 2021.
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©2021 Geri Zabela Eddins; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance