Presidential inaugurations are both politically and historically significant. They are official markers of new executive leadership for our nation and remind us about the importance of tradition and continuity. Inaugurations are an essential public affair, as they feature various leaders across political aisles and branches of government as well as everyday citizens partaking in parades and speeches.
Sadly, this year, few Americans could physically participate in presidential inaugural events. With a raging pandemic, social distancing and outdoor gatherings became the norm, leading to far fewer festivities.
Another feature missing from this inauguration was the presence of the outgoing president, Donald Trump. Instead, Mike Pence publicly represented the previous administration. Trump avoided public and media attention in the days leading up to the presidential inauguration of Joe Biden, but not before announcing that he would not participate in any festivities.
For an outgoing president to not partake in an inauguration of his successor is unfortunate. Even America’s former presidents raised concerns about Trump not attending Biden’s inauguration. They did so because they understood that Trump’s absence brushed aside a politically important tradition and hurt the continuity from one administration to the next. Worse, this non-action set the political tone for public officials and by extension, for Americans writ large.
However, it shouldn’t be surprising that Trump avoided Biden’s inauguration. Years before his presidency, Trump was known for holding grudges and demanding to be the center of media attention. But he was not the first president to avoid an incoming president’s inauguration.
Trump’s snub is historically rooted and reflects partisan divisions not altogether different from our own times. But not since 1869, when Andrew Johnson decided to stay behind at the White House and sign bills, has an outgoing president refused to attend his successor’s inauguration.
Before then, three other presidents skipped out on their successors’ inaugurations. In 1801, John Adams left Washington on the day’s first stagecoach, departing at 4 a.m. before the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson. The two men were well-acquainted, as they ran against each other in 1796. Historians still debate Adams’ decision to flee the capital five years later, but the political rancor between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, along with personal animosity between Adams and Jefferson, certainly played a part. In the process, Adams set a regrettable precedent: an incumbent president who failed to win reelection avoided his successor’s inauguration.
John Quincy Adams followed in his father’s footsteps in 1829. Like his father, Quincy Adams faced a familiar foe in Andrew Jackson. The two men had battled for office in 1824, with an inconclusive count in the Electoral College throwing the election to the House of Representatives. Quincy Adams edged out Jackson. Four years later, Jackson delivered a resounding defeat to the incumbent president. With no love lost between the two men, Quincy Adams departed the White House the day before Jackson’s inauguration.
Less known is about the case of President Martin Van Buren, who succeeded Jackson in 1837. Once again, Van Buren faced a reelection challenge from a previous electoral foe: William Henry Harrison. In the election of 1840, Harrison narrowly defeated Van Buren. Although the two men enjoyed cordial relations, Van Buren was not invited to attend the inauguration by the Senate Inauguration Committee, which was controlled by the opposition Whig Party.
The Johnson snub did not follow the same pattern as the two Adamses and Van Buren, but stemmed from a personal rift with his successor, Ulysses S. Grant. The unfortunate precedent finally ended the next time an incumbent president lost reelection. In 1889, defeated incumbent President Grover Cleveland rode with President-elect Benjamin Harrison from the White House to the Capitol. In the rain, Cleveland graciously held an umbrella over Harrison’s head as he was sworn in. In 2021, President Trump broke this 132-year streak.
Fierce partisanship has long been a part of presidential elections. A multitude of challenges face President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, but perhaps the most important — and the theme most prominently stressed on Inauguration Day 2021 — is to foster unity. And if history is any guide, even as the actions of a prior president sets the tone from one administration onto another, political snubs should not get in the way of governance.
Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D., is the School of Graduate and Professional Studies associate dean and teaches political science at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. He is also a frequent contributor on WNPR.
Thomas J. Balcerski, Ph.D., is associate professor of history at Eastern Connecticut State University. He is a frequent contributor to CNN and other media outlets. Twitter follow @tbalcerski