Prepare to be underwhelmed. If history is any guide, when President Barack Obama delivers his second inaugural address at midday on Monday his words won't long linger in the public's memory.
Inaugural addresses as a group are largely forgettable. When he was helping John F. Kennedy prepare his address, aide Ted Sorensen read all the past such speeches and concluded, he later wrote, that they were "a largely undistinguished lot, with some of the best eloquence emanating from some of the worst presidents." The dozen which have been delivered since Kennedy's 1961 address have done little to alter that judgment.
This is due in part to the men delivering the speeches. "So many of these presidents are so forgettable," says historian Robert Dallek. "They don't make much of a mark on the country's memory. So I think their inaugurals reflect the quality of the men, and the historical reputation they leave us."
And Obama faces the challenge which dogs any second inaugural address: how to bring drama or freshness to a continuity event. "There's no novelty to it," explains Jeff Shesol, who was a speechwriter for President Clinton. "A first inaugural address is America at a pivot point. … A second inaugural is a presidency at midstream."
For the most part the speeches generally recalled as ranking among the greats were delivered at critical moments in the nation's history. But they also managed to balance the moment with posterity. "They manage to speak very directly to their moment but they also say something to our own," Shesol says. "They manage to be timeless without being lost in the ether somewhere and unmoored from events."
Presidents have delivered 56 inaugural addresses. Here are the five best.
Thomas Jefferson's 1st, 1801: The presidential contest of 1800 was negative in a way that makes modern campaigns seem gentle. John Adams, the Federalist incumbent, favored monarchy and had schemed to marry his son to one of King George III's daughters, his enemies charged. Thomas Jefferson, the Democratic-Republican nominee, was an atheist vivisectionist whose election would ignite a French Revolution-style reign of terror, according to his rivals. Matters were not helped when, after the Democratic-Republicans seemed to win handily, the Electoral College deadlocked with both Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, getting the same number of votes (electors did not yet cast separate votes for president and vice president). This threw the matter to the Federalist-dominated, lame duck House of Representatives which, after 36 ballots, elected Jefferson.
He would become the third president, but his swearing in marked the first time the presidency had shifted from one political party to the other. His political enemies still feared his radicalism, and there was even some talk of civil war. "He was trying to emphasize that there should be a constitutional transfer of power, and it shouldn't be seen as a reason for rebellion and bloodshed," says Dallek.
On the morning of Wednesday, March 4 (the date set for the transfer of power until the 20th Amendment moved it to January 20), Jefferson emerged from the Conrad and McMunn boarding house, a short distance from the Capitol, and walked to the Senate chamber for his swearing in. More than 1,000 people crammed into the chamber—"not another creature could enter," one witness reported—to listen to the new president deliver his address.
"Friends and fellow-citizens," he began in an almost inaudible tone, declaring his "sincere consciousness that the task is above my talents." He quickly turned to the main job at hand, reassuring his audience that the peaceful transfer of power was not a prelude to revolution. While affirming the "sacred principle" of majority rule, he cautioned that the will of the majority "must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression."
In a passage with which some contemporary politicians might want to reacquaint themselves, he said that, "every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists."