WASHINGTON — When Rutherford B. Hayes rode to the White House on a winter Monday in 1877 for his inauguration as President Ulysses S. Grant's successor, few bystanders noted that the incoming 19th President was seated on the right side of Grant's four-in-hand carriage--the place normally reserved for the chief executive.
That was the tip-off that, in fact, Hayes was already President: He had taken the oath of office at a secret White House ceremony on the previous Saturday evening. For the first time, a President-elect had been sworn in ahead of time as insurance against the possibility that the country might be left leaderless in a hiatus between presidential terms.
Similarly, on Inauguration Day, 1985, President Reagan already has been sworn in for his second term even before the tradition-laden public ceremonies are held today.
The 20th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1933, fixes Jan. 20 for the swearing-in of the President. Thus, Reagan's official oath-taking ceremony, attended only by relatives, friends and Cabinet members, was held Sunday, aiming to assure continuity in the presidency without violating the Sabbath--and, incidentally, without competing with the National Football League's televised Super Bowl.
Day-late inaugurations have been standard in years when the statutory turnover has fallen on a Sunday. The first postponement came when James Monroe was sworn in for his second term on Monday, March 5, 1821, a day after the mandated inaugural date, in the old Hall of the House of Representatives, now Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.
The next delayed inaugural fell on March 5, 1849. Zachary Taylor, a Mexican War major general who had cast only one presidential vote in his life--for himself, on the Whig ticket--took the oath for a term that ended 16 months later with his sudden death. Outgoing President James K. Polk confided in his diary his dismay at Taylor's observation during their carriage ride to the Capitol that "California and Arizona were too distant to become members of the Union."
In both the Monroe and Taylor cases, the nation's leaders--reflecting the tranquility of the times--apparently were unworried by having the President sworn in a day late. Instead, they trusted that there was only a slim chance that an emergency could arise on the official Inauguration Day.
As the first to take an expedited oath, Republican Hayes set a continuing precedent. He clearly had a problem, for returns giving him the election over Democrat Samuel J. Tilden had been challenged. The outcome turned on 20 disputed electoral votes that were not finally allocated until March 2, only two days before the official inauguration date. With inaugural plans understandably incomplete, Washington was rife with rumors of an attempted Tilden takeover.
In this atmosphere, the President-elect and his wife were among White House dinner guests on Saturday, March 3. After dinner, Grant and Hayes slipped into the Red Room, where Chief Justice Morrison B. Waite administered the simple 35-word oath that binds Presidents to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." On Monday morning, there was no sign of trouble as Grant and his successor rode to the Capitol.
The nation was four weeks away from entering World War I on Sunday, March 4, 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson was sworn in privately for a second term by Chief Justice Edward D. White. Wilson rode the next day in an open carriage to inaugural ceremonies held at the Capitol amid the most elaborate security precautions Washington had seen since Abraham Lincoln took office on the eve of the Civil War.
No further scheduling problem arose until Sunday, Jan. 20, 1957, when Chief Justice Earl Warren swore in Dwight D. Eisenhower and his vice president, Richard M. Nixon, for a second term at a private White House ceremony following church services. They took the oath publicly the next day at the Capitol.
Eisenhower's second inauguration marked the first Sunday conflict since ratification of the 20th Amendment, which moved the date for changing Administrations from March 4 to Jan. 20. Congress set the March date in 1792 to allow plenty of time for transition after the November elections. But as communications improved, its principal effect was to extend the authority of political lame ducks, and demands for a quicker transition increased with time.