Why Are Presidential Inaugurations on January 20th?

They haven't always been in January—in fact, they were held during a different month for well over 100 years!

Even (or perhaps especially) if you live in the United States, there’s a whole lot about America’s government and election system that’s perplexing. The explanations behind some things are simple, while others seem downright wacky. In case you’re curious, here’s a list of answers to 19 political questions you’ve been too embarrassed to ask.

But as the inauguration of our soon-to-be 46th president, Joe Biden, approaches, one particular question may be why January 20 is the date we inaugurate our presidents. And why is it more than two full months after we’ve voted?

Why do we vote in November?

The best way to start answering this question is first to explain why our Election Day is the day it is. And that’s a whole ‘nother story, but basically, in 1845, Congress chose a Tuesday-in-November Election Day to best accommodate churchgoers and farmers. The harvest would be over by November, and winter wouldn’t have arrived full force, so November was deemed the best choice. With that set, Inauguration Day was another matter.

Inauguration Day has changed

While early November to mid-January may seem like a long time, it used to be even longer between the election and the inauguration. American presidents used to be inaugurated on March 4. And this was, well, because of the times: Back in the 1800s, we didn’t exactly have the technology to quickly tabulate votes like we do nowadays. People had to count every vote, report the results (which took a while in an era without phones and the Internet!) and travel to the capital. So a pretty lengthy lame-duck period was necessary, to provide ample time for all of that to happen. And, in fact, Inauguration Day was set as March 4 even before Election Day was specified. The Congress of the Confederation set March 4, 1789, as the day our first-ever president, George Washington, would start governing. His inauguration actually ended up being delayed until April because of winter weather—but after that, March 4 inaugurations were the law of the land. Get a look at some vintage photos of early inaugurations.

Why January 20?

First of all, unlike presidential elections, which take place on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November (meaning it’s on a different date in different years), inaugurations always take place on January 20, no matter what day of the week that is. (In 2021, it will be a Wednesday.)

As technology improved, it became clear that the four-month interim was no longer necessary. In addition, the flaws of such a long lame-duck period came into sharp focus in late 1860 to early 1861, when lame-duck James Buchanan did absolutely nothing about the secession of southern states and escalating pre–Civil War conflict. And Abraham Lincoln, not yet the president, couldn’t do anything.

However, it was clear that there was still a need for some time between election and inauguration. Time was needed for the new administration to choose a cabinet and otherwise prepare, and to ensure those words we’ve all become so familiar with this election cycle: “a peaceful transfer of power.” Speaking of, here’s what happens if a president refuses to leave office.

In January 1933, the 20th Amendment to the Constitution determined January 20 as the new day for presidents to be inaugurated; it look effect in October of that year. The struggles of the Great Depression had further proven the need for a shorter lame-duck period—between November 1932 and March 1933, Americans had to wait that much longer for FDR’s relief action as he and lame-duck Herbert Hoover barely even communicated.

So in 1937, after Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to a second term, he became the first president to be inaugurated on January 20. And that date has remained until this day!

Next, take your mind off all the political turmoil with these candid, comical cartoons about politics and money.

Sources:

  • History: “Why Does Inauguration Day Fall on January 20?”
  • UMKC School of Law: “The Constitution and the Inauguration of the President”

Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for RD.com who has been writing since before she could write. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and has been writing for Reader's Digest since 2017. In spring 2017, her creative nonfiction piece "Anticipation" was published in Angles literary magazine. She is a proud Hufflepuff and member of Team Cap.