Presidential Inaugural Speeches
Language is a tool of leadership and communication. Words can change history. The history of American oration includes many powerful speakers. Some of these speakers were Presidents and some of their finest speeches were Inaugural Addresses. Inaugural Addresses can set the tone for a successful Presidency. These words can be used to inspire, unite, comfort, and educate the people. Let us now examine the context, language, delivery, and impact of some of the most famous Inaugural Speeches. Themes of humility, unity, progress, patriotism and faith are present in almost every speech; most allude to the importance of the time in which they were given.
George Washington: President from 1789-1797
Washington delivered his first Inaugural at Federal Hall in New York City on April 30th, 1789. He was dressed as an ordinary citizen in a brown suit and was preceded by great fanfare. He took the Oath of Office outside and was viewed by a crowd, but then gave the speech inside to the Congress and Senate. Only the Oath was required, but Washington thought that since he would not give a State of the Union that year, he should give an Inaugural Speech. The tradition is still alive today. According to many of those present, GW gave a poor performance.
John Adams: President from 1797-1801
Adams gave his Inaugural Address in Philadelphia, PA, where he was the secondary figure, most people were watching President Washington retire. Washington turned to him and quietly said, "I am fairly out and you fairly in… see which of us will be happiest." Adams's Inaugural Address contains some excellent sections, but is typified by his scattered and argumentative personality and includes a 727 word sentence. After his four years in office, he lost the 1800 election to Thomas Jefferson and did not attend Jefferson's Inauguration. Adams decided on leaving Washington DC early in the morning on Jefferson's Inauguration day.
Thomas Jefferson: President from 1801-1809
Jefferson's first Inaugural Address was delivered in Washington, DC and he walked to the ceremony from his boarding house. On his walk over to the ceremony he escorted by some troops and a large group of admirers. His speech was far more eloquent than his predecessors and shocked many of his supporters by promising that his administration would not be as revolutionary as some expected.
Jefferson's Second Inaugural set the prototype for Second Inaugural's until President Lincoln. Jefferson used the speech to thank the people for their approval and confidence and alluded that his re-election was a referendum on the success of his first term showed the people's allegiance to the Democratic-Republican Party. In theory, this is true, reinforced by the elections of Madison and Monroe, carrying on the Jefferson platform.
John Quincy Adams: President from 1825-1829
He did not to take the oath of office on a bible. He instead used a book of law. The Address is in the typical Adams style, but uncharacteristically religious in parts.
Andrew Jackson: President from 1829-1837
Jackson's Inaugural Address was delivered outside to accommodate the large crowd that came to celebrate the Inauguration. The East Portico of the Capitol was chosen so Jackson could address a larger crowd. A large mob overwhelmed the White House that night, doing significant damage; coming to see the "Frontier President". A man of actions more than words, his Inaugurals are adequate, predictably paying tribute to the "common man" and the principles of Jacksonian Democracy: smaller government and strict reading of the Constitution
Franklin Pierce: President from 1853-1857
Pierce's Inaugural Address had perhaps the worst opening paragraph to a political speech. He used a law book instead of a Bible and "affirmed" rather than "swore", because two months before the Inauguration, the Pierce family was involved in a train accident and saw their 11 year old son Benjamin crushed to death and Mrs. Pierce convinced him it was God's punishment for pursuing along with accepting high office. He broke from the party line, had Southern sympathies, and was not supported for a second term.
Abraham Lincoln: President from 1861-1865
Abraham Lincoln's evolution as a speechwriter contained a variety of experiences. He gave extemporaneous speeches early in his career as a lawyer and politician along with a duel challenge in 1842 resulting from letters he had published in the newspaper caused him to be more careful with his words. Lincoln used notes and outlines which were useful in the debates with Stephen Douglas and the carefully written complete text for Cooper Union Address. Even with his experiences with writing he decided to accept help and suggestions for First Inaugural Address in 1861.
Lincoln's plain-spoken style and carefully selected words set the way for short and concise speeches. Most speechwriters after Lincoln pay tribute to him for using as few words as necessary.
Theodore Roosevelt: President from 1901-1909
The Bully Pulpit and the character of Theodore Roosevelt consisted of a short, but strong, and eloquent speech. Modern speechwriters often use it as a model of an excellent Inaugural Address. Roosevelt's Inauguration was attended by a wild scene of visitors that consisted of cowboys, Indians, cavalry troops, and coal-miners. He wore a ring the held a lock of Lincoln's hair. The ring was borrowed from John Hay, then serving as Secretary of State, but who had been President Lincoln's personal secretary.
Franklin D. Roosevelt: President from 1933-1945
Franklin D. Roosevelt was the only President to be elected to more than 2 terms. His First Inaugural was the last March 4th Inaugural Address given. The 20th Amendment, when passed in 1933, to the U.S. Constitution changed the Inaugural date from March 4th to January 20th.
Delivered March 4th, 1933, FDR's First Inaugural Address accomplished all the goals FDR had hoped to meet: back was the American people's faith in their country, back was their confidence in the office of the President. FDR and his team had reminded the nation that anything was possible if they worked together and he asserted that, "the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself."
John F. Kennedy: President from 1961-1963
"We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans-born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage-and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty."
Lyndon B. Johnson: President from 1963-1969
Johnson's Inaugural Address is not the best example of his speeches because it was heavily influenced by his speechwriters and tried a little too hard.
Gerald Ford: President from 1974-1977
Ford was one of a handful of Presidents to not give an Inaugural Address. Other presidents to not give an Address were John Tyler, Andrew Johnson, and Chester Arthur who served as President after the President died and weren't elected in their own right.
Ronald Reagan: President from 1981-1989
Reagan's first Inaugural Address recognized the idea that he was an instrument of change. To accommodate a bigger audience, the West Front of the Capitol was used and has been used ever since. His Second Inaugural was the coldest on record and had to be moved inside the Capitol Rotunda.
Presidential Inaugural Addresses have seen high and low points. The best speeches live on in our collective memory through immortal phrases and quotations. Many of these are found carved in stone in the many famous memorials on the National Mall.
Did You Know?
William Henry Harrison holds the record for the longest Inaugural Address: 8,445 words; the President took two hours to read it. He also broke tradition by delivering part of the address before taking the oath of office; he then finished the speech.