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Inauguration Day: A capital under siege

Updated: Jan 22, 2021

Franklin D. Roosevelt at his final inauguration in 1945.George Skadding/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images

It’s Donald Trump’s final day as president — and Joe Biden’s first.

A presidential inauguration in the United States is usually a celebration of democracy.

Hundreds of thousands of people descend on Washington to watch a newly elected president take the oath of office. A departing president signals his respect for the country by celebrating the new one, even when that departing president is disappointed by the election’s outcome — as was the case with Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and others.

“I grew up in the Washington area, and inaugurations have always been a time of hope and fresh beginnings regardless of party,”

Peter Baker, The Times’s chief White House correspondent, told me.

But when American democracy is under siege, an inauguration can have a very different feel. That was true in 1945, when the U.S. was fighting fascism in World War II, and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fourth inauguration was a spartan affair. It was true in 1861, when the country was on the verge of war and Abraham Lincoln was the target of an assassination plot. It was true again four years later, when smallpox was raging and the Civil War was nearing its end.

And it will be true today — when mismanagement has left the U.S. coping with the world’s worst Covid-19 toll and when law enforcement agencies are warning of potential violence by President Trump’s supporters.

The day will still be a triumph of democracy in the most important way: A defeated president’s attempt to overturn a fair election has failed, as has a violent attack on Congress by his supporters. The election’s winner, Joe Biden, will be sworn in as president around noon Eastern, just after the new vice president, Kamala Harris.

Nonetheless, American democracy is under siege. Washington resembles an armed encampment, with visitors barred from many places, fences surrounding the National Mall and troops lining the streets. Trump will not attend the event, and many of his supporters believe his false claims.

“I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s surreal to see our city become such an armed camp. It reminds me of Baghdad or Kabul back when I covered those wars, but I never imagined we would see it quite this way in Washington.”

said Peter, who has covered every White House since Clinton’s and who first covered an inauguration as a junior reporter in 1985, the start of Ronald Reagan’s second term.

Here’s how to watch today’s inauguration. Coverage will begin around 10 a.m. Eastern.

Below, we briefly look back at the three inaugurations most similar to today’s — from 1945, 1865 and 1861.

Abraham Lincoln stood under a wood canopy for his first inauguration.Library of Congress


Several Southern states seceded after Abraham Lincoln’s election, and one newspaper described fears that “armed bands” would try to thwart his inauguration. A plot to kill Lincoln forced him to sneak into Washington in the early morning.

On Inauguration Day, cavalry members flanked Lincoln’s procession, soldiers blocked streets and roof-mounted snipers eyed the crowd.

“The day to which all have looked with so much anxiety and interest has come and passed. ABRAHAM LINCOLN has been inaugurated, and ‘all’s well.’”

The first sentence on the front page of the next day’s New York Times:

Black soldiers were among the crowd at Lincoln’s second inauguration.Alexander Gardner, via Library of Congress


Washington was a grim wartime city for Lincoln’s second inauguration, having endured waves of smallpox and torrential recent rains. The crowd that day stood in mud “almost knee deep.” Lincoln rode in an open carriage, with a military escort of both Black and white troops.

“a curious little white cloud, the only one in that part of the sky, appeared like a hovering bird, right over him.”

A Times account — by the poet Walt Whitman — noted that as the president spoke,

The actor John Wilkes Booth, soon to become Lincoln’s assassin, was in the crowd that day.

A small crowd at the White House for F.D.R.’s fourth inauguration.Harris & Ewing, via Library of Congress


Security concerns and wartime austerity turned Franklin Roosevelt’s fourth inauguration into “the simplest inauguration on record” with “the smallest ever” crowd, The Times wrote.

The public portions of the event lasted just 15 minutes, partly because Roosevelt was ailing. He trembled as he stood on the South Portico of the White House to deliver a brief address. Less than three months later, he would die of a cerebral hemorrhage. By the end of that summer, the U.S. had won the wars in both Europe and Asia.

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