Donald Trump is not the first American president to fail to attend the formal swearing-in of a successor.
In 1801, there was no tradition for a president who lost re-election appearing at the inauguration of the winner. And John Adams wasn’t about to set it.
Adams, the second president of the United States, departed the White House before dawn’s early light rather than stick around to watch Thomas Jefferson take the oath of office at noon on March 4, 1801. The two men had staged a bitter campaign in which Adams was called “a hideous hermaphroditical character” and Jefferson characterized as “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Rather than witnessing the first transfer of the American presidency from one party to another, Adams left Washington, D.C., at 4 A.M. on a public stage to Baltimore. “Adams himself never explained why he did not stay for Jefferson’s inauguration, but then it seems he was never asked,” wrote Adams biographer David McCullough.
John Quincy Adams made the snubbing of the inauguration a bit of a family tradition and did his father one better by leaving the White House on the night before the inauguration of Andrew Jackson. The two had staged a bitter campaign in 1824 when Jackson won the popular vote but lost the presidency to Adams in a vote by the U.S. House of Representatives in what his supporters branded as a “corrupt bargain.” Jackson won a landslide victory in their 1828 rematch, which was another vicious campaign.
There are no records of Martin Van Buren attending the inauguration of William Henry Harrison, but it’s not clear why. Harrison invited Van Buren to dine together a week after the inauguration so the feelings between them couldn’t have been irreparably broken by the campaign.
Andrew Johnson, impeached one time less than Trump, did not attend the swearing-in of Ulysses S. Grant. Long considered one of America’s worst presidents, Johnson had a strained relationship with Grant in the aftermath of the Civil War. In the lead-up to the swearing-in, Johnson told Grant he would be happy to travel to the ceremony in the same carriage. Grant gave no reply, so the inaugural committee made plans for Johnson to travel to the ceremony separately. When the outgoing Cabinet arrived at the White House to go to the inauguration, Johnson told them they would remain at the White House instead to work on running the country for a final few hours. When noontime came, Johnson stood up, shook hands with his Cabinet, and left the White House.
Woodrow Wilson would travel to the U.S. Capitol in the same carriage as his successor, Warren G. Harding. In ill health after a debilitating stroke, Wilson was not well enough to attend the inaugural ceremony. And in 1974, Richard Nixon departed the White House after announcing his resignation and gave his famous salute before boarding a helicopter. Hours later, Gerald Ford took the oath of office in the White House’s East Room without his predecessor in attendance.