With the inauguration of President Donald Trump just one day away, the list of lawmakers who have announced that they will not attend Friday’s events has surpassed 50. But, while those boycotts have drawn controversy, and the ire of Trump himself, they are not the first such protests.
The honor—or infamy—of being the first to be formally boycotted by legislators goes instead to Richard Nixon’s second inauguration, in 1973. At the time, the Library of Congress told the Washington Post that the action by lawmakers was the first known example of its kind. Stephen Stathis, a Library specialist in inaugurations, noted that individual representatives had stayed away from the ceremony in the past “because of personal hostility,” but that the “large scale” boycott was new to him.
Still, Rep. Don Edwards, a California Congressman who spoke out about the boycott, stressed to the press that it was not an official, organized event.
As a result, there was nobody keeping track of the exact number of participants. Even now, it’s hard to nail down the precise number of lawmakers who made the decision to keep away from Nixon’s swearing-in.
A New York Times article from the following day noted that, “Only about half the 435 members of the House of Representatives and the 100 members of the Senate took their places on the Capitol steps to witness Mr. Nixon’s recitation of the Presidential oath of office”—but that not all of them were missing due to protest; others were simply unable to make it, or stayed away but refused to comment on why. A later rundown by CBS put the boycott figure at 80 members of Congress. The UPI at the time, in advance of the inauguration, quoted Rep. Edwards that the figure would be closer to 165; Edwards based the number on the size of the Democratic Study Group. Later, the same news agency noted that about 200 had said they would boycott. Rep. Bella Abzug, one of those participating in the boycott, applauded a number she placed at 150 of her colleagues. According to the Chicago Tribune of the following day, Rep. Charles Diggs was the only African-American representative who attended, out of 15 total.
On the other hand, Rep. Tip O’Neill, the House Majority Leader, noted to the New York Times that the turnout, which he estimated at 300 out of 535 members of Congress present, was actually “better than usual” compared to Inaugurations in the previous few decades.
As exceptional as Nixon’s presidency would prove to be, he was certainly not the first President whose reelection might have prompted opponents in government to join in protest. Even his own first inauguration in 1969 had seen widespread protest. So why did legislators only take this step in 1973?
One important factor was the timing of Inauguration Day in relation to an important turn in the course of the war. That fall, it had seemed like peace was at hand in the Vietnam War—in fact, on Election Day many Americans could have reasonably believed that the controversial conflict was about to come to an end, as Henry Kissinger had promised—only to have things quickly fall apart. Nixon sent an ultimatum to Hanoi in mid-December to resume negotiations within three days. When that didn’t work, the “in calculated anger, the President unleashed the most massive bombing of North Viet Nam of the whole long war,” as TIME put it. The bombardment, known officially as Linebacker II and among civilians as the Christmas bombings, galvanized anti-war activists with a purpose that was still fresh on Inauguration Day. The D.C. police estimated at the time that 75,000 people showed up at the Lincoln Memorial to protest, and many of the “counter-Inaugural” events drew larger crowds than their official analogs.
“For me the dignity of the day will be in the peacefulness of the (antiwar) protest,” Rep. Pete Stark told the Washington Post, explaining his decision not to attend the Inauguration.
But the Inauguration Day protests, including the boycott by lawmakers, are now seen by some as a sort of last hurrah of the American anti-war movement of that era. As TIME noted in its coverage of the protest, many of the signs borne by those present seemed outdated and “the demonstration seemed passive, as though it commemorated the many marches that had gone before.”
But, though the energy of the protest in 1973 may not have ended up affecting the course of the war they protested, the 1973 boycott participants did make history, setting a template for protests to follow.
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