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–by Don Kennon

Several keen-eyed readers of yesterday’s Presidential Inaugural Quiz noticed an error in question 3, which had asked “Which two Presidents affirmed rather than swore the oath of office?”  As these readers observed, only one President, Franklin Pierce, affirmed the oath. Herbert Hoover, whom many sources cite as having affirmed the oath, indeed swore the oath as can be heard in recordings of his inauguration. It had been assumed that as a Quaker, Hoover did not swear the oath. He did, as did Richard Nixon, also a Quaker.

A contemporary engraving of Franklin Pierce taking the oath of office on March 4,1853. Library of Congress

A contemporary engraving of Franklin Pierce taking the oath of office on March 4,1853. (Library of Congress)

However, the evidence that Franklin Pierce affirmed the oath is clear and strong from contemporary accounts.  Why he did so remains somewhat a mystery. Peter A. Wallner, the author of a two-volume biography of Pierce, could find no evidence of why Pierce chose to affirm rather than swear the oath. He speculates that perhaps Pierce did so for religious reasons or that he was just trying to perpetuate the myth of his personal humility.

Whatever the motivation, Pierce’s swearing-in ceremony took place within the context of a terrible personal tragedy. Just two months earlier, on January 6, 1853, Pierce, his wife Jane, and their only surviving child, 11-year-old Bennie, traveled by train from Boston when the car in which they were riding plunged down an embankment near Andover. Pierce and his wife survived but they witnessed their son’s death. Jane Pierce, devastated by the experience, blamed her husband’s political ambitions for the accident. She remained a recluse during his presidency and did not attend the inauguration. There were no balls because of her mourning. A cloud of sadness seemed to hang over a “cold and cheerless” White House during Pierce’s presidency.

There are a couple of other interesting side notes to Pierce’s inauguration. He recited his inaugural address from memory and his vice president, William R. King, did not attend the ceremony. King, terminally ill with tuberculosis, had gone to Cuba for his health, where he took the oath of office on March 24, 1853, twenty days after inauguration day. He died on April 18 and the office of vice president remained vacant for the next four years.