As security fears gripped its capital and a global calamity continued to claim the lives of hundreds of thousands of its citizens, the United States prepared for a presidential inauguration unlike any in its history.
With U.S. participation in World War II entering in its fourth year, President Franklin D. Roosevelt believed the times called for a simple ceremony for his fourth inaugural on January 20, 1945. To conserve money and manpower at a time when the country was rationing supplies such as gas and lumber, Roosevelt decided that there would be no gala celebration of his swearing-in. No concerts. No inaugural balls. No marching bands and fancy floats parading down Pennsylvania Avenue. “Who is there here to parade?” he responded to reporters asking about inauguration plans.
Abraham Lincoln had been the only previous president to take the oath of office during wartime, but even his inauguration had included many of the traditional trappings, as did Roosevelt’s first inaugural during the depths of the Great Depression in 1933. This time, though, the president economized.
Although Congress appropriated $25,000 for his inauguration, Roosevelt pledged to spend less than $2,000. Bypassing the traditional inaugural location at the U.S. Capitol, he instead chose to stage the public swearing-in ceremony at the White House. Roosevelt, who was suffering from heart failure, also had his health in mind when deciding to stage a bare-bones inaugural, which would be historic not only for being the first time a president was sworn in four times but for being one of the shortest on record.
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LISTEN: Franklin D. Roosevelt's Fourth Inaugural Address
The overcast skies that shrouded Washington, D.C. on the morning of January 20, 1945, mirrored the grim wartime mood of the country. Although the rain and sleet that fell on the nation’s capital overnight had ended, Roosevelt wasn’t impressed with the weather conditions. “It’s a lousy day,” the president proclaimed after sticking his head outside.
James Roosevelt didn’t think his father looked so great himself. “Old man, you look like hell,” he said. The president laughed and replied, “I’m a little tired, that’s all. A few days in Warm Springs will fix me right up.”
It appeared that many of Roosevelt’s supporters heeded his plea to not travel to the capital for the inauguration. The crowd was nowhere near the estimated 150,000 who witnessed him taking office in 1933. With their black overcoats set against the white snow underfoot, the spectators who gathered beyond the White House gates on the Ellipse to listen to the ceremony over loudspeakers looked like salt and pepper that had been sprinkled in the shadow of the Washington Monument. Nearly 8,000 ticket holders, including wounded servicemen from local hospitals, flowed through the White House gates and stood in the slush and hard-packed snow on the South Lawn, which was devoid of any chairs.
At noontime, the U.S. Marine Band struck up “Hail to the Chief” as Roosevelt appeared on the South Portico without a hat, cape or coat in spite of the brisk temperatures. The president’s frail appearance frightened former First Lady Edith Wilson, the widow of former President Woodrow Wilson. “I feel dreadful,” she told labor secretary Frances Perkins. “He looks exactly as my husband did when he went into his decline.”
Following the invocation, there was a bit of awkwardness as Vice President Henry Wallace, who had been cast aside as Roosevelt’s running mate for Harry Truman, swore in his successor. (It would be the last time that a vice president took the oath of office from his predecessor.) Then it was the president’s turn. Partially paralyzed by polio, Roosevelt wrapped his arms around the necks of his son James and a Secret Service agent who lifted him from his seat. Clutching the lectern to steady himself, Roosevelt turned to face Chief Justice Harlan Stone and took the oath of office.
The president then addressed his fellow Americans as his right arm and body trembled from the strain of standing. “You will understand and, I believe, agree with my wish that the form of this inauguration be simple and its words brief,” he said before speaking about the challenge confronting the country. “We Americans of today, together with our allies, are passing through a period of supreme test. It is a test of our courage—of our resolve—of our wisdom—of our essential democracy.”
Roosevelt was faithful to his pledge to be brief. After just 558 words, the second-shortest inaugural address in American history was over. (Only George Washington’s 135-word second inaugural address was more concise.) The entire inauguration lasted only 15 minutes. “Dog catchers have taken office with more pomp and ceremony,” declared Roosevelt’s Secret Service chief, Mike Reilly.
Roosevelt Died Less Than Three Months Later
Rather than the traditional post-address luncheon with members of Congress, Roosevelt instead hosted a modest buffet of chicken salad, unbuttered rolls, unfrosted cake and coffee for 2,000 attendees. Struck by stabbing chest pains and loathing the prospect of glad-handing the luncheon attendees, Roosevelt told James, “I can’t take this unless you get me a stiff drink. You’d better make it straight.” The president’s son smuggled a bottle of bourbon from his father’s room, and Roosevelt drank from it to dull his pain before entering the reception.
Death wasn’t far from Roosevelt’s mind on Inauguration Day. He had insisted that all 13 of his grandchildren attend, according to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, “realizing full well this would certainly be his last inauguration perhaps even having a premonition that he would not be with us very long.” The president discussed his will with James, told him about a letter locked in a safe with instructions for his funeral and spent 40 minutes visiting the White House doctor after hosting an afternoon tea with members of the Electoral College.
Just 82 days after Roosevelt took the presidential oath of office at the White House, Truman would do the same following Roosevelt’s sudden death on April 12, 1945, at the age of 63. With the 1951 ratification of the 22nd Amendment, which limited presidents to two elected terms or one if they had already served more than two years of a predecessor’s term, Roosevelt became the last president inaugurated four times.