January 20, 2021 marks the 59th inauguration of the President of the United States--a ceremony that began over 232 years ago when George Washington took the oath of office to become the country's first chief executive. While his inauguration occurred at Federal Hall in New York City, ensuing inaugurations after 1801 were hosted in the District of Columbia at the United States Capitol. As we celebrate this time-honored tradition, let's take a look back several Masonic moments and people who helped shape past inaugurations.
New York Chancellor, and Grand Master, Robert Livingston administered the first Oath of Office for George Washington on April 30, 1789. Without a Bible readily available for Washington to take his oath, Jacob Morton, the Marshall for the Inaugural Parade and Master of St. John's Lodge No. 1, offered to fetch his lodge's Bible, which was only a few blocks away in the lodge. Livingston agreed and Morton loaned the Bible for the ceremony. The relic has since been used by other Presidents including Harding (1921), Eisenhower (1953), Carter (1977), and George H. W. Bush (1989) during their inaugurations.
The tradition of an inaugural gala or ball can be traced back to 1809 when First Lady Dolly Madison hosted an event following her husband's swearing-in ceremony. The gala occurred at the Long Hotel in Washington, D.C. and guests paid $4 per ticket to attend. Over four hundred guests attended the special event.
In 1833, during President Andrew Jackson's second inauguration, the Grand Lodge's masonic hall served as the venue for one of two inaugural balls. Jackson, a Past Grand Master of Tennessee, became an honorary member of Federal Lodge No. 1 of DC during his first administration on January 4, 1830. The masonic hall served as the site for another inaugural ball a decade later for President William H. Harrison. The Grand Lodge's decision likely raised a few eyebrows amongst the local masons as Harrison first rose to national prominence as a Presidential candidate for the Anti-Masonic Party.
Commissioner of Public Buildings, and Past Grand Master of the District of Columbia, Benjamin B. French served as the Chief Marshall of President Lincoln's inauguration parade. French became a close advisor to the President and First Lady during their time in Washington, D.C. He joined Lincoln at the Gettysburg battlefield dedication and even developed a song for the occasion. As Commissioner of Public Buildings, French oversaw the completion of the US Capitol dome and the funeral for his beloved President and friend.
While Garfield received the masonic degrees in Ohio, it was in Washington, D.C. while serving in congress when the future President became very active in Freemasonry. Garfield not only joined a masonic lodge but became an active member in the York and Scottish Rite appendant bodies. When Garfield won the Presidential election in 1880, he invited his own Knights Templar commandery, Columbia No. 2, to serve as his personal honor guard during his inauguration. Columbia remained at his side throughout his short tenure as President and even escorted the President's remains to his final resting place in Ohio.