The presidential inauguration marks the transition of power from one leader to the next for the United States and weather has historically played an integral role in the ceremony since the earliest days of the nation.
If you think it’s been a while since it last snowed on Inauguration Day – you’re right. And one U.S. president saw a record high Inauguration Day temperature for his first swearing-in only to follow it up with a record low Inauguration Day temperature the second time he took the oath of office.
Weather this year will have a different role than it has in the past as the coronavirus pandemic has forced some of the celebrations to be held in a virtual format. There will also be limited attendance during the ceremony in accordance with public health guidelines.
Conditions in the nation’s capital during the ceremony have even been a factor in changing the date of Inauguration Day. According to National Weather Service (NWS) meteorologist Ray Martin, the presidential inauguration used to be held in March, and it was not until 1937 that the ceremony was held on Jan. 20.
According to the Library of Congress, the Constitution established Inauguration Day as March 4, and the date was moved to Jan. 20 after the 20th amendment was passed. Due to modern advances in communication and transportation, election officials no longer required so much time to gather election returns or for the newly elected presidents to travel to the U.S. Capitol Building for the ceremony.
In addition, the weather in March compared to the weather in January in Washington, D.C., played a role in the decision to move the date, communications and marketing manager for the American Historical Association Jeremy Young said.
“It supposedly snows less often on Jan. 20 than on March 4 in Washington, D.C.,” Young explained. He said by moving the date to earlier in the winter, officials believed they would have less instances of severe winter weather. “March is a really snowy month in Washington.”
In fact, the Inauguration Day with the most “infamously bad weather” was one that saw William Howard Taft sworn in, Young said, which took place on March 4, 1909, nearly three decades before the official date was changed.
The NWS also cites Taft’s 1909 inauguration as the worst one in history in terms of inclement weather. The event was forced to be held inside after a storm came through the area and left Washington D.C. buried under a 10-inch thick blanket of snow, which Young said was very uncommon during the earlier years of the nation.
“There was no television,” Young said of the importance of holding the momentous occasion outdoors, “so there was no way to show the president taking the oath of office unless the president was outside and people could see it.”
The severe weather delayed trains and clogged the streets of the city. Taft’s inauguration was also the last time snow actually fell during the ceremony itself.
Despite Taft experiencing the most dramatic weather, William Henry Harrison’s inauguration in 1841 is one of the most famous in American history due to the inclement weather that many believed led to Harrison’s death just one month later.
After delivering an 8,445-word speech that spanned almost two hours — the longest inaugural address in U.S. history — on a wet and freezing day, the ninth president of the United States contracted pneumonia and later passed away on April 4.
Despite the seemingly coincidental timing of his diagnosis, historians are divided on whether the inauguration actually played a role in Harrison’s death. According to History.com, some say it is unlikely the president’s speech was his killer, as he didn’t develop any symptoms until more than three weeks after the inauguration.
Many people cite Harrison’s lack of hat or coat on that bitterly cold day as the reason he got sick, but Young said the story goes deeper than just that one day.
“He didn’t get sick during the inauguration, he got sick because he kept doing it,” Young said. “He would go early in the morning to the local markets just wearing his street clothes and wouldn’t wear a coat and hat, and three weeks after his inauguration he did that and it was raining,” Young said. “His clothes were wet and he wouldn’t take them off and he got pneumonia and died.”
Moreover, he pointed out, the pattern of behavior during his first month in office combined with lackluster health care may have been the true culprits in his demise.
“The pneumonia made him sick and then he had some pretty poor medical treatment,” Young said. “He was being treated as though he had the common cold.”
On top of that, doctors did not take Harrison’s illness very seriously until he was already near death, Young explained. Ultimately, the cold he caught that led to pneumonia was what killed him, he said.
While historians can read what people alive at the time said about the weather, there is not much official documentation on what the weather was really like that day due to the lack of weather tracking technology at the time. Reliable weather-record keeping in the U.S. was still at least a decade away from emerging at that point.
Young said historians are able to know if it rained or snowed because people who were present at certain events would write about the conditions. Written historical accounts include people speculating about whether the weather was colder or warmer than usual, but there is no evidence or hard record on what the temperature actually was on that day in 1841.
“We only have a note that says it was cloudy and pretty breezy, but back then we didn’t have reliable temperatures. There’s nothing noted,” Martin, the NWS meteorologist, said.
Twelve years after Harrison’s inauguration, the inauguration of President Franklin Pierce in 1853 took place on a cold, snowy day. Although the snow stopped falling before noon and it appeared the sky was clearing up, the snow picked up once again during Pierce’s address.
As the snowfall grew heavier, most of the crowd dispersed and the celebratory parade was called off. Most tragically though, First Lady Abigail Fillmore, the wife of outgoing President Millard Fillmore, caught a cold during the swearing-in ceremony — and her condition worsened and then progressed into pneumonia. She died within the month.
“So there actually is someone who died of pneumonia because of an inauguration, but it wasn’t William Henry Harrison,” Young explained.
The lowest temperature on record at an inauguration was measured in 1985 at Ronald Reagan’s swearing-in for his second term. The temperature in D.C. at noon was a bone-chilling 7 degrees. The 1985 inauguration, which occurred on a Sunday, also holds the record lowest temperature for the date in Washington, D.C., with a reading of minus 2 degrees at the lowest point.
But Reagan wasn’t required to endure that brutal cold while taking the oath because the ceremony was moved indoors and took place in the Grand Foyer of the White House.
It was so cold that day that the inaugural parade scheduled for the following day was canceled. ”I would like to cry,” Ron Walker, the chairman of Reagan’s inaugural committee, said at the time, according to The New York Times. Instead of the parade, Reagan took the oath of office a second time inside the Capitol Rotunda, where, video of the event shows, observers were able to gather and watch.
The chilly single-digit temperature was a stark contrast from the noon average in January, which Martin said is 40 degrees. And, interestingly, Reagan saw both extremes for his inaugurations. A far cry from the frigid weather on Jan. 20, 1985, the mercury climbed to 55 degrees at Reagan’s 1981 inauguration — the warmest on record, according to the Library of Congress. According to NWS records, the 55-degree mark that day tied the record set on Inauguration Day in 1913 when Woodrow Wilson was sworn in for his first term. But Wilson’s big day took place when presidents were being inaugurated on March 4.
Interestingly, NWS records show an estimated noontime temperature of 57 degrees in 1829 for Andrew Jackson’s first inauguration, but that number is far from an official reading and occurred in March as well, thus Reagan remains the Jan. 20 record-holder.
The last inauguration day on which the mercury reached 40 degrees at noon was the 1993 swearing-in of Bill Clinton.
The inaugurations for George Washington and John Adams were not even held in Washington, D.C. President Washington held two inauguration ceremonies — one in Philadelphia and one in New York City — and Adams held his in Philadelphia. The first inauguration held in what is now the nation’s capital was Thomas Jefferson’s in 1801.
Due to assassinations and other emergencies that have called for a last-minute transition of power, many other inaugurations occurred in various locations and dates — some occurring in the summer, resulting in a pretty warm ceremony.
“Pretty much everything has happened [during an inauguration] — snow, rain, warmth, cold,” Martin, who previously worked for a stint, said.
In more recent years, weather has certainly been a factor in the big day, though not always in the most dramatic fashion.
Some rain showers forced attendees to pull out umbrellas and don ponchos at the inauguration of President Donald Trump in 2017. Although the wet weather was accompanied by unusually mild conditions for the middle of January in the nation’s capital. The temperature was 48 degrees as Trump was sworn into office at noon, making it the fourth-warmest January inaugural temperature on record, according to a report from The Washington Post.
“We’ve had light rain several times,” and President Trump’s Inauguration Day in 2017 was dampened by “sprinkles,” Martin said. Actual falling snow hasn’t been reported during the inauguration ceremony on any of the Jan. 20 dates, since 1937, Martin explained.
Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States in 2009 amid subfreezing conditions. The temperature at noon was 28 degrees when he took the oath of office. It was so cold that Obama made a weather forecast of his own for his second inauguration in 2013: “This one is going to be warmer,” he pledged to a voter, according to Politico. Turns out his forecast was accurate as the high climbed to 45 F at noon on Jan. 20, 2013, the National Weather Service reported.
The National Weather Service (NWS) reports that the normal high temperature in Washington, D.C., on the day of the event is 43 degrees — right around the target for what is forecast this year. The normal low for the day is around 28 degrees. The possibility for measurable precipitation each year is a one in three chance and, statistically, there is a one in six chance of precipitation during the ceremony itself.