Presidential trivia aficionados are quick to identify the president who was in office the least amount of time (William Henry Harrison) and the one who served the longest (Franklin D. Roosevelt). There is one distinction claimed by another president that might stump even the best of presidential historians.
Do you know who was the only president to take the oath of office four times from one Chief Justice? The answer is not the obvious one.
Every four years, the world’s attention is focused on the person who recites the constitutionally-prescribed oath of office and assumes the duties of President of the United States. The 35 words of the oath (or, in the sole case of Franklin Pierce, the affirmation) takes less than a minute to administer, but it is the most important minute in that new president’s life.
Of the 45 men who have been president in 46 administrations, 22 of them took the oath of office once. Whether from failure to be reelected, a decision not to seek reelection, or dying before the first term was over, the oath of office was a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Sixteen men took the oath to enter into another term of office. One of these, Grover Cleveland, happened to take the second oath eight years after the first, becoming the only president thus far to serve two non-consecutive terms.
We also have the peculiar case of a one-term president who took the oath twice. As detailed in this article, Rutherford B. Hayes took the oath of office the day before his administration began and again two days later. In this way, Hayes became the only one-term president to be sworn in twice.
That means 17 individuals or 18 administrations benefitted from the oath of office twice.
Third Time’s the Charm
Four presidents managed to take the oath three times.
Calvin Coolidge became president on August 2, 1923, upon the death of Warren G. Harding. He was at his family homestead in Plymouth, Vermont when word came that Harding had passed away. Coolidge’s father, a notary public, administered the oath at 2:47 a.m. by the light of a kerosene lamp. Some questioned the appropriateness of the oath being administered by anyone other than a representative of the federal government. To preempt any potential questions to the legitimacy of his powers, Coolidge agreed to repeat the oath on August 21, 1923, in a private ceremony. He took the oath for the third time on March 4, 1925, having been elected in his own right.
Woodrow Wilson was elected to two terms as president. His second inauguration, March 4, 1917, fell on a Sunday. Rather than have the big celebration on the Sabbath, he chose to have a private swearing-in at the President’s Room at the U.S. Capitol. The next day he re-took the oath in a public ceremony.
Dwight D. Eisenhower’s experience was much like Wilson’s. His second administration began on a Sunday. Following tradition, he took the oath privately on January 20, 1957, in the White House East Room. The public ceremony was the next day.
Ronald Reagan, like Wilson and Eisenhower, found the beginning of his second term landing on a Sunday. He took the oath of office privately on January 20, 1985, in the North Entrance Hall of the White House. His third time taking the oath was the next day in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, a concession to the bitterly cold weather that day.
FDR — In a Class By Himself
And, of course, we have Franklin D. Roosevelt. As most students of history know, FDR was the only president to be elected four times. His inaugurations in 1933, 1937, 1941, and 1945 give him the distinction of being the only person to take the oath of office for four elected terms of office.
If you have been keeping tabs, you might have noticed that not all presidents are accounted for. Thus far we have:
- Those who took the oath once: 22
- Those who took the oath twice: 22 (23, if you count Cleveland twice)
- Those who took the oath three times: 4
- Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 4 times
Add those together, and you get 44 men for 45 administrations. As of this writing, 45 men have served in 46 administrations. Who is missing? Identifying that person also answers the question that will stump your best presidential trivia buff.
Four Oaths, Two Administrations, One President, and One Chief Justice
The Chief Justice, whose remarkable memory allowed him to answer questions during his Senate confirmation hearing without notes or supplementary material, experienced a bit of a hiccup as he administered the words to the incoming president. He prompted Obama to use the word “faithfully” in two different places in the oath as well as misplacing a preposition by saying, “President to the United States.” This confused Obama, and it all went south from there.
The critical part of the exchange went as follows:
Roberts: that I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully…
Obama: that I will execute…
Roberts: faithfully the office of president of the United States…
Obama: the office of president of the United States faithfully…
Once the painful experience was over, the Chief Justice said, “Congratulations, Mr. President,” everyone cheered, and the band played “Hail to the Chief.” Even so, some were concerned that the oath was so botched that it wasn’t legitimate. For that reason, the next day, January 21, Obama invited the Chief Justice to the White House for a redo. This time, Roberts and Obama got it right, after Obama said to the Chief Justice that this time “we’re going to do it very slowly.”
The third time Obama took the oath was on January 20, 2013. That day fell on a Sunday. In keeping with tradition, Chief Justice Roberts administered the oath to him in a private ceremony in the White House Blue Room.
The public ceremony for Obama’s second inauguration took place on January 21, 2013, at the Capitol. Once again, the oath was flubbed, but this time, the blame rested squarely on the president. When he got to, “that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States,” he froze and only got out part of the word “States,” grimacing as he realized he had flubbed it (watch the video here). Fortunately, he had already taken the oath flawlessly the day before, so there was no need to ask for another Mulligan (a word, coincidentally, popularized by one of Obama’s predecessors).
Although the reasoning is a bit embarrassing, the result was a new presidential/Supreme Court record. Although FDR took the oath four times, it was administered by two different chief justices. The first three times, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes presided. By the time FDR’s fourth inauguration rolled around, Hughes had been replaced by Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone. For that reason, Barack Obama is the only president to take the presidential oath four times from one Chief Justice. And, of course, John Roberts is the only Chief Justice to administer the oath four times to the same president.
If you want to know whether anyone became president without taking the oath at all, you’ll want to read “The Man Who Was President for One Day and the Day There Were Two Presidents.”