The 5 Best Inaugural Addresses

While most inaugural addresses are forgettable, these five speeches endure.

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Supported by his son James, Roosevelt approached the rostrum to take the oath of office for the first time. While tradition dictated that Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes would read the presidential oath, and Roosevelt should affirm it with a simple, "I do," FDR set a new tradition by repeating each phrase of the oath.

Wearing nothing more than his formal morning coat against the biting wind, Roosevelt told his fellow countrymen that, "This is a day of national consecration." This was a last minute addition to the speech, which he had jotted onto his reading text shortly before delivering the speech.

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Roosevelt had first started discussing an inaugural address with aide Raymond Moley the previous September. But while Moley would collaborate with Roosevelt to write the bulk of the speech, the most famous line was proffered by another aide, Louis Howe. Editing a near final draft, Howe had inserted the assertion that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Moley later suggested that Howe had gotten the phrase from a department store ad, but if true the advertisement has been lost to history.

The portions of the speech that drew the most crowd reaction were FDR's calls for "action, and action now." (The single biggest applause of the day, disturbingly, came when Roosevelt promised that if Congress would not act, he would request wartime executive powers to deal with the crisis on his own.)

The address was aimed at reviving a nation which was not only reeling, but had been reeling for years. He "sought to be honest and optimistic at the same time, a challenging combination he had developed when counseling polio patients at Warm Springs," Jonathan Alter wrote in The Defining Moment, his book on Roosevelt's first 100 days.

In a moment of Lincoln-like symbolism, the sun finally poked through the gray clouds just after Roosevelt ended his address. The national reaction to the speech was instantaneous. Nearly half a million people wrote to the new president. "This fellow talked as if he were 300 percent sure," Tommy Corcoran, a lawyer who would go on to become a close Roosevelt aide, recalled. "That blast of the horn was worth 1,000 men."

Franklin Roosevelt's 2nd, 1937: The state of the country had improved during FDR's first four years, but the weather for his second inaugural had not. The first January inauguration was greeted by rain and sleet, driven through the city by high winds. The crowd of thousands that gathered to watch the president renew his oath of office found themselves in mud to their ankles. "If they can take it, I can take it," Roosevelt said. Twice he would have to pause to wipe the rain from his eyes as he read.

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He had marked up the speech more than any other in his time in the White House, aide Samuel Rosenman later recalled. Rosenman and Tom Corcoran—who four years earlier had been struck by the "blast" of Roosevelt's "horn"—were FDR's principle collaborators on the address.

Four years into the great experiment of the New Deal, Roosevelt's second inaugural was both a spur to further progress and a bold philosophical statement of activist government.

"Old truths have been relearned; untruths have been unlearned," he said. "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics." The nation had "come far from the days of stagnation and despair," FDR told his audience, but warned that "our present gains were won under the pressure of more than ordinary circumstance." But the hard-won advances could lead to complacence, he warned: "Prosperity already tests the persistence of our progressive purpose."

And there was still work to be done. He described a country still struggling to recover from economic disaster. "I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day." He, repeated the "I see" formulation three more times before uttering his famous encapsulation: "I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished." Roosevelt had penciled that summation himself. He continued: "It is not in despair that I paint you that picture," he said. "I paint it for you in hope—because the nation, seeing and understanding the injustice in it, proposes to paint it out. … The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."