Grant’s Inauguration of 4 March 1869

Ulysses S. Grant’s inauguration was slated for 4 March 1869 at the East Portico of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. He had been elected the presidential candidate in 1868 after being unanimously nominated as the Republican Party’s pick. In the end Grant won the popular vote for president by 300,000 votes out of 5,716,082 votes cast. He also received a landslide winning 214 votes in the Electoral College compared to his Democratic opponent, Horatio Seymour, who received just 80.

Grant's inauguration - Grant in 1870

Ulysses S. Grant in 1870. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

As usual the outgoing President was expected to attend Grant’s inauguration, a tradition that had long been effect. However, when President-elect Grant refused to sit with out-going President Andrew Johnson in the carriage that would be taking them to the inauguration Johnson refused to attend.* He instead remained at the White House signing last minute legislation.

President Andrew Johnson. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although Johnson snubbed Grant, he was not the first president to snub his successor by refusing to attend their inauguration. Two other outgoing presidents – John Adams in 1801 and his son John Quincy Adams in 1829 – refused to attend their successors’ inaugurations. John Adams never left any record as to why he did not attend Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration, but conjecture is that he did so because Jefferson never invited him to attend and he may not have wanted to impose, or he did not attend because it was the first time an opposing party won, and he hoped to avoid any violence between Federalist and Democratic Republicans. In any event, a few months before the famous novelist Jane Austen, moved from Steventon to Bath with her parents and sister Cassandra, Adams left the White House at 4am on the day of the inauguration.

As to his son John Quincy Adams it is clearer why he did not attend his successor’s inauguration. He and Andrew Jackson had endured a bitter election battle for the presidency in 1824. Jackson received more votes, but he did not win a majority in the Electoral College. The decision was therefore sent to the House of Representatives where Adams was chosen as president. That left Jackson feeling embittered and claiming that the election had been stolen. The two men then battled for the presidency again in 1828. This time Jackson won. The bitter feelings each had for the other remained. So, when Jackson arrived in Washington on 11 February 1829, he of course did not call on Adams and Adams made no overture towards Jackson and did not invite him to the White House. Because of the men’s bitterness Adams officially left the White House the evening of 3 March, the day before Jackson’s inauguration.

While it might have been poor form for a president to avoid the inauguration of his successor, Grant’s 1869 inauguration and its parade would be hailed as one of the greatest events of the times. In fact, New York’s Sun wrote:

“The city was in a hum of excitement during the night. The rush of visitors had been unprecedented. Thousands of strangers were housed in the hotels and private houses, and hundreds walked the streets during the early hours of the morning, unable to find lodgings. The galleries of the Senate and House of Representatives were crowded during the night sessions, and the dying hours of the Fortieth Congress were watched with eager interest.”[1]

Unlike the previous sunny day, Grant’s inauguration day opened with an obscured sun and a sky filled with “dull clouds.” Rain had also begun drizzling on the night before the inauguration. However, despite the less than stellar weather, there were thousands of excited spectators anticipating the important and interesting events that would follow:

“At an early hour in the morning the route along which the procession of escort was to pass was thronged with a multitude of people, who availed themselves of every position presenting itself in doorways and on balconies and porticoes … later in the morning every window along the route was occupied by crowds of spectators, the majority of them being ladies. Flags, streamers, and mottoes decorated the line in profusion, and the general joy of the occasion was manifest in the elaborate preparations made everywhere in honor of this eventful day and the hearty plaudits of the surging multitude.”[2]  

Grant’s inauguration day began when he appeared at his headquarters at half past nine o’clock in the morning in a fine open park phaeton. He was accompanied by General John Aaron Rawlings and his staff as Grant’s staff had arrived in advance of him. Grant was also greeted by lively music played by the cavalry band and shortly after his arrival, the Vice-President-elect, Schuyler Colfax appeared:

“General Grant was dressed in a black cloth frock coat, vest, and pantaloons, silk hat, well-brushed boots, and yellow kid gloves. Speaker Colfax was attired precisely the same as General Grant except that he wore an overcoat.”[3]

Vice-President Schuyler Colfax. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Everyone headed to Grant’s office after arriving. There Grant smoked while the men conversed waiting for the committee that was expected to conduct them to the capitol for the inauguration ceremonies.

“In the meanwhile the troops and military organizations had commenced forming at the different points from which they were to join in the procession, and the crowds of spectators upon the streets grew more and more dense, crowding every nook and corner, perching upon signboards, filling porticos and windows, and even housetops, in the intensity of their anxiety to view the grand parade. The windows of every house along the route were alive with spectators and the window and porticos of the Treasury Department and internal revenue bureau were packed and crammed to their utmost capacity.”[4]

As planned the committee arrived on time and at precisely 11:00am the procession was ready to begin. All the troops had been stationed in their proper locations, artillery was posted, and everything was in order. President-elect Grant, calm, composed, and accompanied by Rawlings strode from his office towards his phaeton when an auspicious unexpected thing happened:

“[J]ust as the President-elect was moving to his carriage the clouds, which had become less dense, gave way for a very few instants. The sun burst forth in grandeur, evoking general exclamation. For some moments it continued to shine.”[5]

Vice-President-elect Colfax entered the phaeton next. He was accompanied by Admiral Theodorus Bailey of the Navy. Members of the General’s staff then entered their carriages along with the committees of Congress and other organizations. The scene continued with The Baltimore Sun remarking that it “made a gorgeous picture of the starting of the procession. As it moved off the cavalry band struck gayly up ‘Hail to the Chief,’ and the scene became thoroughly brilliant.”[6]

The sun then disappeared, and rain began to fall. As Grant called for his umbrella, the procession the moved off, headed by company K, the Fifth United States cavalry. Everyone assumed Grant’s inauguration would proceed like most of those had before him and that President Johnson would join them. They were wrong:

“When the head of the line reached the front of the White House it stopped to wait for the carriages of President Johnson and his Cabinet to join it, and one of the guns of Dupont’s battery was loaded, ready to fire the signal gun announcing that the President of the United States had entered his carriage and started for the capitol. But [instead] a messenger arrived from the Executive mansion and informed the chief marshal, General Webb, that President Johnson would be unable to take part in the inauguration ceremonies, as he would be engaged in considering and signing bills until the hour of noon, when his official term would expire.”[7]

Crowds waiting to witness Grant’s inauguration were immense with reports stating there were as many as 75,000. Supposedly 25,000 were gathered at Pennsylvania Avenue alone and it was also claimed that there were many more people on the streets. Newspapers also noted that many Black citizens had arrived to witness the important event:

“The colored Zouaves were among the first to move towards the White House … a company of fifty colored men, who walked all the way from North Carolina to witness the inauguration, attracted a great deal of attention [too].”[8]

As the procession moved along, cheers rent the air and newspapers reported that it was an “unparalleled scene.” Music from different bands played, constant drum rolls could be heard, and the brilliant uniforms of the troops all added to a scene that many had not anticipated to be striking. Other details of the parade were also noted:

“The procession was composed of eight grand divisions. … Cavalry, infantry, artillery, and marines were also in line. [Division after division followed] … And in this manner the whole grand cortege swept on to the Capitol.”[9]

At the Senate chambers, another scene was playing out. Before 10am corridors and stairways were jammed. Lines of policemen and soldiers formed a barrier making it impossible to get into the building except for a few (about 2,000), who had an official position or some sort of acquaintanceship that enabled them to procure a ticket and therefore admittance.

When the clock struck the hour of ten, the doors leading to the galleries were opened. The twelve-hundred available seats were soon filled. Among those present to witness the inauguration was Grant’s wife and family, all of whom occupied a position in the front. Mrs. Colfax and other important women were also seated near the front and Grant’s father, Jesse Roof Grant,** attended and attracted attention.

Grant's inauguration - Julia Grant

Grant’s wife, Julia,. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

When the doors on the eastern side were opened a “crush” of people poured through them. Papers reported that the tremendous pressure to enter was accompanied by frightened cries of women. Among those pressing to come in and witness the event were also many distinguished people in the literary, scientific, and commercial fields. There were also many fashionably dressed women sporting the latest bright spring toilettes.

When Grant and Colfax entered arm in arm a buzz of anticipation broke. People were excited about witnessing was to follow and they watched mesmerized as the committee appointed to escort them to the chamber followed. The doors at the main entrance were then thrown open and the Justices of the Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice Chase, all clad in their black robes, walked imposingly down the center aisle before taking their seats at the front facing the rostrum.

When everyone was present, quiet was hailed and the ceremonies began. Colfax was first to take the oath of office and after doing so he delivered the following brief address:

“Senators: In entering upon the duties in this chamber, to the performance of which I have been called by the people of the United States, I realize fully the delicacy as well as the responsibilities of the position. Presiding over a body whose members are in so large a degree my seniors in age, and not chosen by the body itself, I shall certainly need the assistance of your support and your generous forbearance and confidence. But, pledging to you all a faithful and inflexible impartiality in the administration of your rules, and earnestly desiring to cooperate with you in making the deliberations in the Senate worthy, not only of its historical renown, but also for the states whose commission you hold, I am now ready to take the oath of office required by law.”[10]

The Senators-elect then came forward and took their oath of office. With the new Senate sworn in, spectators were invited to proceed to the eastern portico of the Capitol to participate in Grant’s inauguration ceremony. A procession of dignitaries was accordingly formed and proceeded to the portico for the swearing in and oath taking of the president-elect. The witness to the event then followed rushing forward so quickly the halls and corridors were soon in “inextricable confusion.”

All around the Capitol dense throngs of citizens mingled together. People were everywhere with some were perched on the pediment of the eastern portico, the roofs of the wings, and the lower part of the dome. Curious onlookers could also be seen sitting in the tree boughs at the public square opposite the site where the swearing in of Grant was to happen.

Because the crowds were so dense it was not surprisingly that conflicts erupted. However, just as quickly the police moved to enforce “due decorum.” Their job was to make sure that the focus remained on Grant, who had by this time had risen with the Chief Justice of the United States. As Grant stepped to the platform it was reported he looked calm, serious, and perfectly composed.

“Chief Justice Chase then came forward while Sergeant-at-Arms Brown held forth the Bible, and General Grant turning squarely around looked the Chief Justice in the face, while with one hand on the sacred volume he listened with serious attention to the recital of the oath of office, and in conclusion reverentially kissed the book.”[11]

Grant's inauguration

Grant being sworn in by Chief Justice Chase. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Afterwards, Grant delivered his inaugural address. However, at that same moment that he began to address the crowds bells began to ring in celebration throughout the city and that accompanied by the roar of artillery that was stationed near the Capitol nearly drowned out Grant’s voice. Still Grant’s inauguration speech lasted about fifteen minutes. During his address, his daughter Ellie Wrenshall “Nellie” Grant, born in 1855, was there. The Sun reported:

“[L]ittle Nellie Grant was lifted over the shoulders of the intermediate spectators and set down by the side of her father, where she stood some times unseen and unnoticed by him, but so smiling and happy and brightly innocent, her presence seemed to lend a gleam of sunshine to the scene, and the incident called forthwith many expressions of pleasure and admiration.”[12]

Grant's inauguration - Grant's family

Julia Grant, Nellie Grant, Frederick Dent (Julia’s father), and Jesse Grant. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

At the conclusion of Grant’s speech, the newly minted president was warmly congratulated by friends and family. He then left for the White House in his carriage as the procession reformed and took up its line of march in the same direction. Senators then returned to their chambers and the crowd happily dispersed being assured that they had seen Grant’s inauguration reach its satisfactory conclusion and that the U.S. had now installed its eighteenth president.

*The tradition of the President and the President-elect riding together in a carriage began in 1837 when President Andrew Jackson rode with President-elect Martin Van Buren.
**He later fell down the Capitol steps and was reported to be “considerably injured.”


  • [1] The Sun, “The Advent of Peace,” March 5, 1869, p. 1.
  • [2] The Baltimore Sun, “The Inauguration,” March 5, 1869, p. 1.
  • [3] Richmond Dispatch, “Telegraphic News,” 51 March 1869, p. 3.
  • [4] The Baltimore Sun, p. 1.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Richmond Dispatch, p. 3.
  • [8] The Sun, p. 1.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] New York Daily Herald, “President Grant,” March 5, 1869, p. 3.
  • [12] The Sun, 1

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