Today is a year before US presidential inauguration day. We’re very sure of this.

by Eric on January 20, 2016

A year from today, the US will inaugurate a new president. But inauguration day has not always been thus fixed.

In the early years of the Republic, habit (rather than statute) placed the date of inauguration at March 4—though even that convention was not quite firm. In 1821, with the incumbent President James Monroe about to take the oath of office for his second term, March 4 fell on a Sunday. Monroe asked of Chief Justice John Marshall whether he could take the oath on the following day, rather than sully the Lord’s day with secular business.

Marshall replied,

I have conversed with my brethren.… As the constitution only provides that the President shall take the oath it prescribes ‘before he enter on the execution of his office,’ and as the law is silent on the subject, the time seems to be in some measure at the discretion of that high officer. There is an obvious propriety in taking the oath as soon as it can conveniently be taken, & thereby shortening the interval in which the executive power is suspended. But some interval is inevitable.

Let me interject: note that Marshall here says that, on consultation with his fellow Supreme Court justices, it appears inevitable that there be a period during which there is not a legitimate President of the United States. (I know what you’re thinking: what if ISIS had attacked in the wee hours of March 4, 1821?)

The time of the actual President will expire, and that of the President elect commence, at twelve in the night of the 3d of March. It has been usual to take the oath at mid day on the 4th. Thus there has been uniformly & voluntarily an interval of twelve hours during which the Executive power could not be exercised.… Undoubtedly, on any pressing emergency the President might take the oath in the first hour of the 4th of March, and the public business would sustain no injury by its being deferred till the 5th, no impropriety is perceived in deferring it till the 5th.

Congress took a more punctilious, if wilier, approach to the expiry of its term; conceding that its ability to legislate ended at midnight on March 3, the lawmakers were in the habit of setting the official clock back to show that midnight had not yet arrived. Later, recognizing the habit of inaugurating the president at noon on March 4, Congress adopted the notion that it was itself entitled to act up until that time.

The twentieth amendment of the US Constitution put an end to these lax practices. Passed by Congress on March 2, 1932 and at last ratified by the states on January 23, 1933, it fixed the meeting of a new Congress at noon on the third of January, and the end of the presidential term at noon on January 20.1 Which is what it will be in 2017.

1Now, inasmuch as this amendment was not ratified until January 23, 1933, it did not apply to the term of the then-outgoing President, Herbert Hoover, whose term was the last to extend until noon on March 4, which meant that Franklin Roosevelt’s first term was cut uniquely short, lasting from March 4, 1933, to January 20, 1937.

Moreover, the twentieth amendment also declared, “If, at the time fixed for the beginning of the term of the President, the President elect shall have died, the Vice President elect shall become President.” Giuseppe Zangara shot at President-elect Roosevelt on February 15, 1933.2 If he had hit Roosevelt and killed him, because the twentieth amendment became part of the Constitution a few weeks previously, Vice President-elect John Nance Garner of Texas would have been inaugurated on March 4, 1933, in Roosevelt’s stead.

2A long-standing tradition, not well supported by documentation, has it that Zangara never meant to kill Roosevelt at all, but was employed by an organized criminal syndicate to murder Chicago mayor Anton Cermak, who was standing next to Roosevelt, and whom Zangara did lethally hit that day.

Much of what appears here comes from

Charles Warren, “Political Practice and the Constitution,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review and American Law Register 89, no. 8 (June 1941): 1003-1025.



Tabasco 01.20.16 at 11:55 pm

A year from today, the US will inaugurate a new president

A year from today, the US will inaugurate a new president, Donald Trump, who will then yell at Chief Justice John Roberts, “You’re fired!”.

Fixed it for you.


The Temporary Name 01.20.16 at 11:59 pm

(I know what you’re thinking: what if ISIS had attacked in the wee hours of March 4, 1821?)

Well obviously their explosive-laden trucks would have stalled in the mid-Atlantic.


Eszter 01.21.16 at 12:15 am

And yet again I wish we had a “like” button.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© 01.21.16 at 12:18 am

A year from now will have yet another corporate whore/warmonger in the White House.

Or else, Bernie Sanders.


Mike Furlan 01.21.16 at 12:46 am

Re: Corporate whores etc.

The first four score of years had the office filled mostly by slave beaters, warmongers and Indian “fighters.” Corporations hadn’t become people yet.

Then mostly white supremacists, corporate whores and warmongers.

Really, how much are we really below or perhaps above par?


Daniel Wolf 01.21.16 at 1:03 am

See the possible acting presidential term of Senate President pro tempore David Rice Atchison, Sunday, March 4, 1849, with the inauguration of Zachary Taylor delayed until the following Monday.


Brett Dunbar 01.21.16 at 2:38 am

@5 Actually corporations have always been legal persons as that is the defining characteristic of a corporation. A corporation is a legal person that is not a natural person. Legal personhood is essentially the ability to be a party to a contract in its own right to sue or be sued itself. This is what makes them different to partnerships where you would sue the partners personally.

What changed was in the 1860s Britain went from a system dating back to the aftermath of the south sea bubble of the 1720s which required a specific parliamentary charter for each corporation to a system which required modest paperwork to establish one. This proved so successful that the US followed suit in the 1880s and much of the world has copied.


Meredith 01.21.16 at 4:43 am

Interesting how long the idea of the March new year held on in the US…. Trying to remember the English mystery set in a 1930’s (?) village where the manor was still collecting its tythes in March. Does the IRS date of April 15 derive from this sense of life’s rhythms?


Trivial 01.21.16 at 7:31 am

Many tribal councils in the early Republic also elected a President in March, although state regulations initially codified that practice.


NomadUK 01.21.16 at 10:19 am

Meredith@8: In the UK, the tax year actually runs from 6 April to 5 April — thanks to the combined efforts of the Romans, Pope Gregory, and some governmental chicanery — which makes for much amusement in figuring out income when one has to file a 1040 whose tax year ended on 31 December.


Salem 01.21.16 at 10:23 am

Meredith – that’s certainly the case for the UK tax date (April 5th), which comes from the March New Year adjusted by the Gregorian calendar (and then 1 more day because they got confused in 1800). Perhaps the US has a similar reason for its date, but I don’t know.


Ebenezer Scrooge 01.21.16 at 11:15 am

Well I remember telling OWS protestors that their signs should not read “Abolish corporate personhood”, but should instead read something like: “No civil rights for corporations.” And I remember them ignoring me. Which was probably all for the best.
(I can’t help giving unsolicited legal advice when there’s somebody wrong at the Revolution. For my health, I’m happy I don’t live near Malheur.)
Oh and by the way. In the US, free chartering of banks started in 1838 (NY), and the free corporate chartering movement is associated with the Jacksonian revolution. Believe it or not, US corporate law was more advanced than English corporate law. It’s not always the case that the more advanced economy has the more advanced law. Sometimes, the more advanced economy has institutions that make up for its legal weaknesses. Setoff, for example, could be found in Colonial Virginia in the mid-17th century because of the lack of specie in North America. In the case of corporate law, I think that the US had fewer rich people, more fluid social structures, and more need to agglomerate anonymous capital.


Brett Dunbar 01.21.16 at 5:03 pm

The Companies Act 1862 extended the availability of limited liability to insurance companies. That New York legislation was only connected to banking. While the UK legislation allowed for an entirely open charter (this helps if your business changes focus dramatically, e.g. Avon started selling Shakespeare plays door to door and now sells toiletries door to door).


Meredith 01.22.16 at 6:39 am

April dates I can imagine as giving time to organize year-end receipts from March.

I sort of like having two new years (as the Romans did), the winter solstice and then again spring, March/April. What’s weird is adding a third, July 1. I mean, I understand that this is about the half-way point since the last winter solstice (leaving time to organize receipts?). But the proliferation of new years is disconcerting. At work, a new year begins July 1. For taxes, it begins January 1. For the core of my life, it begins Dec. 22 (more or less) and March 1 (more or less).

Calendars are crazy. And yet we live by them.


Scott P. 01.22.16 at 1:49 pm

Is there some reason the Presidential oath couldn’t be taken prior to inauguration, thus avoiding the gap without an executive?


Mike Schilling 01.22.16 at 9:54 pm

#8: Beware the tythes in March.


Ken_L 01.24.16 at 7:57 am

A year from today, the 2020 presidential nomination campaigns will begin.

Comments on this entry are closed.