In constitutional terms America is a secular nation – unlike theocracies in which religious power holds sway. It has its own solemn rites, none more significant than the inauguration of a president. In recent decades, highlights include the oath of office, the speech, a parade, the dignitaries and crowds, and glittering balls. Foremost among them, however, amid the pageantry of the quadrennial event, the newly elected president stands on the Capitol’s West Portico, facing the monuments, to suggest why the nation demands change (or prefers continuity) in political leadership. Rather than a detailed outline such as characterizes State of the Union addresses, inaugural addresses call for vision.
Since the onset of the Cold War 70 years ago, it has been customary for incoming presidents to limn the foreign dangers to the United States and pledge support for a powerful military to ward off aggression. Even so, they add, we will cooperate with allies in our common defense and push toward reducing the threat of armaments.
The length of inaugural addresses has ranged from 135 words at Washington’s second inaugural to 8,460 in William Henry Harrison’s – after which “Old Tippecanoe” unexpectedly died within a month. Since World War II they have averaged nearly 2,000 words.
Speech writers begin drafting the addresses weeks in advance as the president-elect suggests ideas and later follows with (much or little) editing. Evincing authority and often worded with dignity, it’s remarkable how few truly excellent addresses there have been.
What follows are four that all historians have numbered among the top 10 – four with words that have echoed through the years.
Thomas Jefferson, 1801:
The hyper-partisanship of national politics today is not worse than what characterized the presidential contest of 1800. The alien and sedition laws of 1798, directed against the French and others who were thought to be influential in the young Democratic - Republican Party of Jefferson, had criminalized any “false, scandalous and malicious” statements against the government. Jefferson and his followers concluded, with reason, that the laws were directed especially against them, heightening their concern about the concentration of power in the federal government. After Jefferson and President John Adams were tied in the Electoral College, it took 36 ballots for the House of Representatives to declare Jefferson the winner. It marked the first time that power transferred to a different political party.
In his inaugural address, Jefferson defended the “sacred principle” of majority rule and sought to lessen partisan bitterness: “We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
Abraham Lincoln, 1865:
As the bloody war to save the Union neared its conclusion, President Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address. Rather than gloating about the successes of northern armies, a note of sadness crept in as he meditated on the unknowable providence of God and the terrible scourge of war without which slavery would continue. Rising above the hatreds of previous years was the moving closing line: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Less than a month after delivering the finest of all inaugural addresses, President Lincoln was assassinated.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933:
Never before had a president entered office with America in such desperate economic straits. One-fourth of the nation’s labor force was unemployed, nearly half of the nation’s banks had failed, and parades of the hungry appeared in major cities. The fifth sentence of Roosevelt’s inaugural address, delivered in a reassuring tone, is one of the most frequently quoted from all American speeches: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” To revive the economy, he promised “action, and action now.”
John F. Kennedy, 1961:
The 1960s began on a note of hope elegantly enunciated by John F. Kennedy, the first Roman Catholic president and the youngest man ever elected to that office. His inaugural address appealed strongly to the idealism of Americans and gave promise that “a new generation of Americans” would elevate public service and directly attack what Kennedy termed “the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.” Millions found inspiration in the most quoted passage of the address: “…ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Inaugural addresses usually celebrate certain unchanging principles which have guided the American experiment and then suggest their relation to the “proper” role of government in our lives. Millions recall from Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address the assertion that “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Donald Trump In his inaugural address on Friday appeared to revise it to say, “The Washington establishment is not the solution to our problem; the establishment is the problem.”
His populist message of returning power to the people followed closely the main thrusts of his campaign. Centered on the theme of “America First,” it will play well not only with the base he nurtured during the presidential campaign, but with those who are suffering economic losses. Unfortunately, President Trump’s dark laundry list of what ails America, from illegal immigration to “rusted-out factories…crime and gangs and drugs,” came across as a way of avoiding other crucial questions, such as how the growing domestic existence of ultra nationalism and concentrated economic power will “make America great again.”
Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. He is the co-editor of “The Conservative Press in Twentieth-Century America” and is a recipient of the Distinguished Historian award from the Ohio Academy of History. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.