At 4 AM on a warm spring day, a stagecoach rumbled from the White House carrying the outgoing president of the United States. It was March 4, 1801, the day Thomas Jefferson would take the oath of office. But John Adams skipped the inauguration. Twenty-eight years later, his son would do the same thing.
In 231 years, only one other president voluntarily skipped the inauguration of the man who took his place. Though the peaceful transfer of power has been a hallmark of American democracy, “peaceful” doesn’t necessarily mean “cheerful.” And neither of the famously irascible Adams presidents felt particularly upbeat on the day he left office.
No law requires a president to show up for his successor’s inauguration. But the Adamses, Andrew Johnson and, in 2021, Donald Trump chose to absent themselves from the festivities.
The 2021 departure of Donald Trump from the presidency mirrors in some ways the events surrounding John Quincy Adams’ leave-taking. A mob broke through security at the Capitol and damaged a venerable symbol of the United States of America. But in 1829, the rabble rousers wanted to celebrate, not to disrupt.
Who Else Skipped the Inauguration
Only one other president refused to attend the president-elect’s inauguration: Andrew Johnson. His successor, Ulysses S. Grant, wouldn’t ride in a carriage with him to the Capitol. So Johnson stayed in the White House, signing legislation and presumably sulking.
Richard Nixon didn’t attend Gerald Ford’s inauguration ceremony because he didn’t have one scheduled. Ford simply took the oath of office in the East Room of the White House after the Watergate scandal forced Nixon’s resignation.
Eight presidents couldn’t attend their successors’ inauguration because they died: (If you’re counting, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, Warren G. Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.)
John Adams Skipped the Inauguration of Jefferson
John Adams’ spirits were low on March 4, 1801.
Just 13 weeks earlier, his alcoholic son, Charles, died of cirrhosis of the liver. Abigail had returned to Quincy already. And he still smarted from the nasty campaign waged against him by Jefferson, his former friend, ally and vice president.
Jefferson had hired a sleazy journalist, James Callendar, to write a hit piece on Adams. Callendar called him a half-mad warmonger who wanted to crown himself king. He also described Adams as “a hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
Despite all that, Abigail had insisted on inviting Jefferson to the White House for tea and cake several weeks before the inauguration. Jefferson apparently went, but the conversation is lost to history.
When Adams skipped the inauguration of Jefferson, it didn’t go over well with the Massachusetts Spy. “Sensible, moderate men of both parties would have been pleased had he tarried until after the installation of his successor,” reported the Spy. “It certainly would have had good effect.”
Adams’ own inauguration had taken place in Philadelphia. During his presidency, he and Abigail had moved into the just-completed White House. Thomas Jefferson therefore became the first president inaugurated in Washington, D.C. More importantly, Jefferson’s inauguration marked the first time in U.S. history that one political party transferred power to another.
Around noon, long after Adams’ departure, Jefferson walked to the Capitol accompanied by congressmen, marshals and military officers. He delivered a short speech in the U.S. Senate chamber and then took the oath of office from Chief Justice John Marshall, who he hated. The subject of his speech: reconciliation.
He and Adams didn’t communicate for 12 years.
Three months after Jefferson took office, Abigail spied her husband in the fields, “swinging his sickle and muttering obscenities at his political opponents,” as Joseph Ellis put it in Founding Brothers.
JQA: Like Father, Like Son
John Quincy Adams skipped the inauguration of Andrew Jackson for much the same reason as his father skipped Jefferson’s. His own alcoholic son would die two months later.
Andrew Jackson had waged a malicious campaign, accusing Adams of wearing silk panties. In response, Adams called Jackson a drunk adulterer married to a bigamist. That backfired when Rachel Jackson died a month before the election.
Jackson won and arrived in Washington on Feb. 11, 1829. He didn’t call on Adams, and Adams didn’t call on him.
But Jackson had invited the Adamses to stay in the White House as long as they needed, even up to a month. He then realized his rooms at Gadsby’s Tavern couldn’t accommodate the large crowds coming to his inauguration. So Adams sent a federal marshal with the message that he could move into the White House on inauguration day. He then put a notice in the newspaper asking his friends not to visit him that day.
Adams moved out of the White House the night before the inauguration. Then he and his wife, Louisa, moved into a private home on Meridian Hill. During Jackson’s inaugural festivities, John Quincy Adams went horseback riding.
White House Mobbed
Ten thousand people came to Washington to see their hero take the oath of office. An estimated 21,000 people watched as Chief Justice John Marshall swore in Andrew Jackson on the East Portico of the Capitol. A ship’s cable held the crowd back from the steps.
After taking the oath of office, Jackson left by a basement door on the west side of the Capitol. He rode a white horse to the White House as his admirers surged forward on the Capitol steps, breaking the ship’s cable.
Jackson had insisted on opening the White House to the public for a simple reception. He had ice cream and punch laced with whiskey served, the latter probably a mistake. His people crawled through the White House windows to get in before Jackson even arrived.
The party got out of hand, and the revelers smashed china and damaged furniture. The staff took the punch out to serve on the front lawn. “The reign of King Mob seemed triumphant,” said Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story. Jackson sneaked out of the White House and returned to Gadsby’s Tavern.
With thanks also to John Adams by David McCullough and Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade: John Quincy Adams’ Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life in Congress by Joseph Wheelan.
Images: Gadsby’s Tavern By Dmadeo – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4781573.
This story updated in 2022.