Politics

Inauguration Boycotts Are an American Tradition

It's not a big deal for some Democrats to skip Donald Trump's swearing-in. John Adams started it.

Plenty of seats available.

Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The news media is making a huge fuss over the several dozen Democrats who are planning to boycott the inauguration of Donald Trump as president. But there is less here than meets the eye. Politicians skipping the swearing-in ceremony of a candidate they opposed is a tradition almost as old as the Constitution.

In 1801, John Adams did not show up for the inauguration of his successor, Thomas Jefferson, and although Adams said the reason was that his son had just died, some historians believe he was angry and wounded by the election outcome. So was Theodore Sedgwick, who with the Federalists out of power suddenly was no longer speaker of the House. His decision to attend to urgent business elsewhere can be put down to nothing but political pique.

Adams was not alone among 19th century presidents in missing his successor’s inauguration. John Quincy Adams did not attend Andrew Jackson’s; Martin Van Buren did not attend William Henry Harrison’s; Andrew Johnson did not attend Ulysses S. Grant’s. (Some historians think Grant did not invite him.)

And it’s not just presidents who haven’t shown up. In 1817, Representative Henry Clay, miffed because he was not named secretary of state, stayed away from James Monroe’s inauguration. Grover Cleveland’s wife did not attend the inauguration of his successor, Benjamin Harrison, but pointedly spent the day visiting a friend instead.

In 1905, Governor James K. Vardaman of Mississippi refused to attend the inauguration of Theodore Roosevelt as president. He even refused to join his fellow governors in sending high school students to march in the parade. He never said why officially, but he was known to have been miffed by Roosevelt’s invitation to Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House. Vardaman, an earnest and demagogic racist, raved often that Roosevelt believed in social equality between the black and white.

In 1917, a certain Mrs. James H. Boggs, the head of the Wilson Women’s Union, declared a boycott of Woodrow Wilson’s inaugural because of a dispute over floats in the parade. No women, she said, would attend. The gentleman in charge of the inaugural ceremonies responded that she lacked “authority” to make that declaration.

Probably the best-known instance occurred in January 1973, when Representative Don Edwards led members of the Democratic Study Group in boycotting Richard Nixon’s second inauguration due to anger over the Vietnam War. The group decided to hold an interfaith prayer vigil for peace instead. Among those who stayed away was Senator George McGovern, whom Nixon defeated in the 1972 election. But McGovern did not attend the interfaith service. Instead he left the country. He was ridiculed by the press. The Baltimore Sun called his decision “self-demeaning.”

In any case, the 1973 boycott didn’t work very well. Congressman Tip O’Neill told reporters that calls to representatives’ offices urging them not to go to the inaugural had the opposite of their intended effect. “There were more members of Congress at this Inaugural than at any I’ve been to in the last 20 years,” he said.

Once upon a time, new presidents would occasionally boycott their predecessors. Franklin Roosevelt broke with tradition when he declined to visit Herbert Hoover at the White House before the ceremony. Dwight Eisenhower accorded Harry Truman the same treatment. Since that time, however, the pre-inaugural visit has become a Washington norm.

To be sure, traditions change. In the second half of the 19th century, an outgoing president was expected to attend his successor’s inaugural ball, and even to stand beside the new chief executive in the receiving line. More than one incumbent gave a state dinner for his successor the night before the inauguration. One wouldn’t want to call the collapse of this tradition a boycott.

As for the Democrats who would rather not attend Trump’s inaugural, they should do as they like. Some critics worry that the boycott sets a bad precedent. True, but few people in politics seem to care any longer about what precedents they set. 1  Other critics worry that by so ostentatiously staying away, the boycotters are violating norms of comity and civility. Maybe so, but those norms were pretty much exploded in Washington long before anyone thought Donald Trump had a serious shot at the White House.

The boycott, in short, is a small deal, not a big one. As with so much in our politics, we have been here before, and survived. The nation and the world face far more urgent issues than who shows up to watch Trump take the oath of office.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. In abolishing the filibuster, for instance.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L. Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net

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