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Posted at 11:15 AM ET, 01/ 8/2009

Inauguration Weather: Swearing-In Date Switcheroo

By Capital Weather Gang

* Wintry Mix Saturday? Express & Detailed Forecast *

By Robert Henson

Most of our nation's presidents have taken the oath of office on March 4. It wasn't until 1933 that the 20th Amendment switched the date to Jan. 20, which averages about 8.5°F colder and roughly twice as snowy (see the Reagan National averages and records for January and March). Of course, it can be plenty wintry on March 4, as shown in the handy history of inaugural weather posted by the Baltimore-Washington NWS office.

Incoming president William Henry Harrison (1841) and outgoing first lady Abigail Fillmore (1853) both caught colds that segued into fatal cases of pneumonia within a month of attending wet, chilly ceremonies. And the snowiest inaugural day on record was March 4, 1909, when 10 inches of wind-driven snow forced William Taft's swearing-in ceremony indoors.

Those memories were still fresh in the 1920s and early 1930s, when Congress began to get serious about changing the inauguration date. But the shift actually had more to do with D.C.'s infamously sultry summers than with the relative merits of the weather in January versus March.

Keep reading for an in-depth account of how weather played into the decision to switch inauguration from March 4 to Jan. 20 (via the 20th Amendment).

The main impetus for the 20th Amendment was to try to eliminate "lame duck" sessions of Congress. Each year, Congress assembled in December, while senators, representatives, and the president and vice president took office on March 4. As a result, every two years an entire December-to-March session of Congress unfolded with previous members in place, and the new Congress didn't meet until the next December, a full 13 months after it was elected. This lame-duck problem was obvious and much-lamented, but attempts throughout the 1800s to shift the dates of congressional terms proved fruitless.

Momentum finally gathered in the 1920s when Sen. George Norris (D-Nebr.) took up the cause of seating Congress and the new president and vice president sooner. Norris was reportedly incensed by a ship-subsidy bill pushed through a lame-duck session with the support of President Warren Harding. In calling for a January start date, though, Norris also took climatology into account. Here's what he said in a 1924 House hearing:

The thing I am anxious to do is to get the Congress to working in January, as soon as possible, because we all recognize that the best time for Congress to work and the time it can do the best work, is before the hot weather of August and July comes on in Washington, and the longer we put it off the more liable we are to push Congress over into the summer months of Washington which is an undesirable thing, as we all know. [Keep in mind that air conditioning didn't reach the Capitol building till the 1950s.]

Another idea was to keep the inaugural date as March 4 and have the new Congress meet right away. But this would likely push sessions into the summer, and that didn't sit well with Norris or with Rep. Charles Gifford (R-Mass.), who said:

It would be a serious thing to my mind to leave Congress in session here in the summer and make it a yearly occurrence. It would make it almost unbearable. We would not do good work.

Some folks who pondered the prospect of a January inaugural didn't seem too bothered by it. Sen. Henry Ashurst (D-Ariz.) noted in a 1922 hearing:

The other argument is that the inclemency of the weather in January precludes the possibility of pomp and demonstration at an inauguration. I think one of the finest things that President Harding has done was to put his foot down upon the pomp and display attempted at his inauguration. Instead of kingly regal exercises the inauguration should be dignified and democratic, fitting in a Republic like our own.

And Levi Cooke, from a special committee of the American Bar Association set up to address the inaugural, opined somewhat puzzlingly:

If it should be decided to inaugurate the President in January, I think they would find just as crisp and sparkling weather in Washington as in May. [According to TIME, Cooke's main claim to fame was as a beer lobbyist, which helps explain the focus on "crisp" and "sparkling".]

The Senate ended up passing versions of the eventual 20th Amendment in 1923, 1924 and 1926. The House proved resistant for years, although some members did bring inauguration weather into the debate. In a 1930 hearing, Rep. Robert Luce (R-Mass.) recalled Taft's snowbound swearing-in as well as Ulysses Grant's frigid 1873 inauguration, which he saw as a child (that day remains the coldest March 4 in D.C. history). Luce concluded:

And so, from the consideration of the lives of public servants, as well as of the assembled multitude, it would be far better either to have the inaugural two months later or else to have it two months earlier, in which case nobody would think of conducting the exercises out of doors.

The proposed amendment didn't clear the House until it found a champion in House Speaker John Garner (D-Texas), who was brought into power by the Depression-driven Democratic landslide of 1930. Like Norris, it seems that Garner was favorably disposed toward the January start date at least in part because of summer climatology. He once claimed that "no good legislation ever comes out of Washington after June."

With the new House on board, all that was left was to resolve differences -- including the date. For years, legislators had vacillated between Jan. 24 and the third Monday in January. Eventually, the House and Senate agreed on Jan. 20, which not only split the difference but echoed the name of the 20th Amendment itself. It became law in 1933 -- too late for Franklin Roosevelt's first inaugural. In 1937, wintry fears came to life with Roosevelt's second inauguration, which brought sleet and cold rain. With 1.77 inches, it remains the wettest Jan. 20 on record.

So was it a weather-savvy move to shift the inaugural? Louis Seidman, a professor of constitutional law at Georgetown University, sees both sides. "From my personal experience growing up in D.C. before air conditioning was widespread, and from my father's experience as a reporter working in D.C. during this period, I can see the wisdom of Norris's concern," says Seidman. "It's a good example, though, of the way that technology tends to make constitutional language obsolete."

Seidman also recalls John F. Kennedy's frigid 1961 inaugural, which was almost derailed by a big snow the day before: "Then -- and now -- D.C. lives under the charming illusion that it never snows here and that there is therefore no need to prepare for it."

Meteorologist Robert Henson is a writer and editor at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which operates the National Center for Atmospheric Research. He is the author of "The Rough Guide to Weather" (second edition, 2007) and "The Rough Guide to Climate Change" (second edition, 2008).

By Capital Weather Gang  | January 8, 2009; 11:15 AM ET
Categories:  Inauguration, Inauguration Features  | Tags:  inaugural weather, inauguration weather, inauguration weather and 20th amendment  
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Im going to be on the mall for the event, working...thus, I'd certainly take my chances on March 4 if I had my choice! There I will be, surrounded by a couple million Americans, witnessing history...and I'll probably be more concerned with the direction of the wind or some other weather-geek issue...sigh.

Posted by: DullesARC | January 8, 2009 12:42 PM | Report abuse

The temp. stood at a frigid 7 degrees at noon on Jan.20,1985. The ceremonies were held inside as a result.

Will noon on Jan.20,2009 be as cold? Probably not, but it increasingly appears to likely be a very cold day. The early morning hrs. of Jan. 20 may be close to zero over parts of northern Va., according to some of the latest model data.

Forecasting details 12 days into the future is similar to throwing darts, but the general pattern is revealing itself.

Posted by: AugustaJim | January 8, 2009 1:25 PM | Report abuse

Hey capital weather, Just wondering if you saw what DT posted over at the eastern forums about the potental secs or mecs? Haha sure does make me wanna pray to the snow gods!

Posted by: clintonportis17 | January 8, 2009 2:32 PM | Report abuse

Well, I've been praying to God for some time regarding the lack of snow. Maybe not hard enough. :-)

Posted by: KBurchfiel | January 8, 2009 5:33 PM | Report abuse

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