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Presidential Inaugurations: Words and Images

James Buchanan, Inauguration, March 4, 1857

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Inauguration of James Buchanan, President of the United States, at the east front of the U.S. Capitol, March 4, 1857. Library of Congress. Manuscript Division. The Papers of Montgomery C. Meigs.

Montgomery Meigs was the supervisory engineer of the Capitol in 1857. His journals are bound in three thick green leather volumes, with his shorthand script written in black ink on beige paper. In the first two volumes of his diaries, the pages are interleaved with beautiful fold-out photographs of statuary, and photographs or drawings of the Capitol under construction. The third volume has numerous stereoscopic photographs of Meigs's family and associates.

In his journal entry for February 17, 1857, Meigs documents John Wood's experiments with photography in anticipation of photographing President Buchanan's inauguration:

Mr. Wood has been trying some photography process of great speed for the purpose of taking a view of the inauguration. He made a view of the front of the Capitol in which the figures are, many of them, quite distinct. This was taken upon collodion and the men thus taken are those who happened to stand nearly quite still for a moment. It took about 4 seconds.

In his entries for March 4th, 5th and 6th, Meigs describes President Buchanan's inauguration as he viewed it from the Senate Chamber and a letter Meigs wrote to retiring President Pierce to thank him for his many kindnesses:

Being in the Senate at the time of the adjournment, I stayed to see the inauguration ceremonies. I had a good view of the multitude upon the platform in the eastern square from the window of the Senate Chamber. I suppose there were from 20 to 25,000 people present. I had a stage erected to take a photograph from. I believe we have succeeded in getting a pretty good view of the ceremony.

I wrote last evening a note to Mr. Pierce upon his retiring from his office, in which I tried to express to him my feelings of gratitude for the kindness and confidence with which he has sustained me.

Enclosed in Meigs's journal near his entry for March 4, 1857, is the first known photograph of an inauguration at the Capitol. The dates of the photographer, John Wood, are unknown, but he was the photographer for the architect of the Capitol from 1856 to 1861. Mr. Wood then entered the war as a photographer of maps for General McClellan. Because the Capitol was still under construction in 1857 and marble blocks littered the east plaza of the Capitol grounds, Meigs built a wooden platform, visible in the foreground of the photograph, to cover the stones to provide standing room for the inaugural crowd. The Senate wing is visible in the background. Since Meigs describes himself in his journal as standing at one of the windows in the Senate watching Buchanan's inauguration, it seems likely that Meigs was looking out one of the windows of the Senate toward the photographer at the moment John Wood captured this image. Another print of this photograph is in the collection of the Architect of the Capitol.

Next: Abraham Lincoln, Second Inauguration, March 4, 1865

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