WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s decision to skip President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration is not without precedent, though one must go back to Andrew Johnson in 1869 to find the most recent example.
John Adams and John Quincy Adams also opted not to participate in a tradition that began with George Washington.
The White House Historical Association points out that John Adams was never formally invited by his successor, Thomas Jefferson, to the event and perhaps didn’t want to impose. The association also noted it was the first time the presidency was transferred to an opposing party and “he may have wanted to avoid provoking violence between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans.”
Following in his father’s footsteps, John Quincy Adams officially departed the White House on the evening of March 3, the day before the inauguration of President Andrew Jackson. Jackson has been in Washington for about three weeks. He did not call on Adams, nor did Adams invite Jackson to the White House.
Some four decades later, President-elect Ulysses S. Grant refused to ride with President Andrew Johnson from the White House to the Capitol for the ceremony. When it was suggested that two carriages carry them separately, Johnson said he would simply not attend the ceremonies, remaining instead at the White House with friends and colleagues and signing last-minute legislation.
“To me, he is much, much different from the two Adamses in that they truly were statesmen and they just had their reasons to be bitter. But they weren’t bad men,” said Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia. “Johnson was a bad man and a bad president.”
Perry said she is “quite forgiving” of the first Adams because the tradition of attending a successor’s inauguration was just beginning, but less so for his son.
She said that over time it has become important symbolically and substantively for outgoing presidents to attend the inauguration of their successor. It reinforces the concept of a peaceful transition of power, but it also tells potential adversaries to be wary of trying to take advantage of the change.
“We pride ourselves on this peaceful transition of power, but also don’t fool with us, don’t think that because we’re transferring power from one man to another, one party to another, or because we’ve had a controversial election, that we’re enfeebled and that we’re weak and that you can attack us," Perry said.
Notwithstanding Johnson’s decision to skip the inauguration of Grant, the tradition of an outgoing president attending the inaugural ceremonies took on greater importance after the Civil War, said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley.
“It’s the ultimate healing gesture. It’s the genius of American reconciliation,” Brinkley said. “It’s with sadness that Trump seems unable to admit defeat and be large enough to wish the new president good luck.
“But, on the other hand, given what has just happened at the Capitol, you know, the insurrection of the Capitol with Trump’s culpability, the nation may be better off with him not being a part of the healing, because he may have been the cancer on the national ward.”
In more modern times, Richard Nixon didn’t attend Gerald Ford’s swearing-in, but there was no pomp and circumstance on that occasion. Rather, Ford was administered the oath of office in the White House East Room shortly after Nixon had tendered his resignation to avoid impeachment.
Perry said she is not surprised by Trump's decision, but she also believes that many people on both sides of the political aisle are probably good with it.
Biden, in fact, said he was happy to have Trump stay away.
Perry added: “Because he is such a polarizing figure, the people who oppose him don’t want to see him there. The people who support him don’t want to see him there because they don’t want him lending legitimacy to Joe Biden or the incoming administration. They want to keep fighting."