Comparing Lincoln's Inauguration to Obama's

This weekend 600,000-800,000 people are estimated to come to Washington, D.C. for President Obama’s second inauguration. Though the record 1.8 million estimated attendance of Obama’s first inaugural four years ago dwarfs that number, it’s still a pretty sizable number. (Fun fact: the previous Inauguration attendance record was LBJ in 1965, with roughly 1.2 million people.) So how do those numbers compare to inaugural crowds in Lincoln’s day?

At Lincoln’s First Inauguration, roughly 30,000 people attended the ceremony at the Capitol on March 4, 1861. Of course, without modern technology, only a fraction of those people heard him conclude his Inaugural Speech with “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

The Second Inaugural Address, the most famous speech Lincoln ever gave outside of central Pennsylvania, was heard by upwards of 40,000 people, most notably John Wilkes Booth (see picture at the bottom of this post). Following Lincoln’s speech, including the famous line “With malice toward none, with charity for all,” over 6,000 people shook the President’s hand at a reception.

Here are some other facts and figures related to Lincoln’s inaugurations:

-One of the most cited moments of Lincoln’s 1861 inauguration in Lincoln lore, was that Stephen Douglass offered to hold Abe’s stovepipe hat while the President gave his speech. Though scoffed at by historians as apocryphal for generations, ironically this was one of the few Lincoln urban myths that proved true, as Allan Nevins wrote in 1959.

-Both times Lincoln was inaugurated, the weather cooperated at the last minute. In 1861 there was rain in the morning, but by the time Lincoln spoke the clouds had parted and it was quite mild. 1865 was even more drastic, as the previous two days drenched Washington with .30 inches of rain, yet the sun shined when Lincoln spoke, albeit with a brisk 45 degree temperature. (For a complete history of the weather of Presidential Inaugurations, check out the official Inaugural Website.)

-Though it’s not explicitly stated in the Constitution, George Washington started the tradition of swearing the oath on a bible. Lincoln used one purchased by the Clerk of the Supreme Court. In 1861 he swore on a random page; in 1865 he swore on Matthew 7:1; 18:7; and Revelations 16:7. In 2009, and on Monday, President Obama used the Lincoln bible, which now belongs to the Library of Congress. (Here is a complete list of known Presidential inaugural bibles.)

-The 1865 Inauguration was the first to include African-Americans in the official ceremonies, as Union Colored Troops participated in the parade.

-John Wilkes Booth attended Lincoln’s Second Inauguration, and was easily within shooting range of the President. This wasn’t the only Lincoln speech Booth heard live, as he was also outside the White House when Lincoln gave his last public address.


For more on the history of Presidential Second Inaugural’s check out this USA Today article.

Share this: