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."
Abraham Lincoln's 2nd, 1865: When Lincoln had taken office four years earlier, he had used his brilliant first inaugural to make a lawyerly but eloquent case for preserving the union. In a closing suggested by one-time rival William Seward and polished by the president-elect, he had appealed to the "mystic chords of memory" which would "yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
Four years later, with the end of the nation's bloodiest war in sight, Lincoln could easily be expected to mark his second term with triumphalism and a celebration of his side's righteousness. Even providence seemed to favor him: As he emerged onto the inaugural platform, the sun made its first appearance after spending the morning hidden by clouds and being obscured earlier in the week by rain. Light flooded down and bathed the Capitol dome, which had not been completed when Lincoln first took the oath of office.
But the president knew that he and the country still faced huge challenges. "There was bound to be bitterness and animosity, and how were you going to make this nation whole again," says Dallek. "It was one of the great challenges of American history." So instead of a victory speech, Lincoln delivered a brief—fewer than 700 words—address with a different tone. "In keeping with this lifelong tendency to consider all sides of a troubled situation, Lincoln urged a more sympathetic understanding of the nation's alienated citizens in the South," Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote in her landmark Lincoln history, Team of Rivals.
While each side had "read the same bible and pray[ed] to the same God, and each invokes his aid against the other," Lincoln said, "the prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes." God had given "to both the North and South this terrible war as the woe" that was their due for the country's original sin, slavery. And, he said, "if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled up by the bondsmen's 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword … 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"
His peroration is carved into history: "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."
"It's such a tragedy to think about the kind of course that he was charting on reconstruction, and it didn't come to pass," says speech expert Michael Cohen, author of Live From the Campaign Trail, about great presidential campaign speeches.
Days after the address, Lincoln wrote a political ally saying that he thought the speech would "wear as well—perhaps better than—any thing I have produced." He was right: Most historians see Lincoln's second as the greatest inaugural address ever.
Franklin Roosevelt's 1st, 1933: The weather welcoming Franklin Roosevelt to the presidency reflected the state of the union he was taking charge of. One later account recalled "the great mass before the Capitol, huddling in the mist and wind under the sullen March sky." One-fourth of the nation's workers were jobless; nearly half of the nation's banks—more than 11,000 of 24,000 in the country—had failed; the stock market had lost 75 percent of its value since 1929.
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.
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.
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."
It was a "uniquely radical speech," says Cohen. "It's an amazingly self-confident speech, but also one that represents a real shift in governing philosophy."
The speech, adds Shesol, whose book Supreme Power recounts Roosevelt's second-term, court-packing fight, is "in many ways the equal of the first [inaugural] in the clarity of the argument and the beauty of the language. … It's not just a series of lines, but it says so much about who he was and what he did."
John F. Kennedy's, 1961: Shortly after his hair's-breadth victory over Vice President Richard Nixon, President-elect Kennedy huddled with Sorensen, his top aide and chief speechwriter, to discuss the inaugural address. "Make it shortest since T.R. (except for FDR's abbreviated wartime ceremony in 1945)," Sorensen jotted in a note to himself.
Brevity (it was less than 1,400 words) was one of the virtues of Kennedy's ringing inaugural. It was also what the historian David Greenberg has called "the last expression of a now-eclipsed strain of Churchillian oratory"—recall, for example, "Now the trumpet summons us again…" Kennedy ordinarily shunned such flourishes. Simplicity and clarity were the goals in his speeches, though he valued pungency of expression as well. "The inaugural was a special occasion, and there was a special tone in that speech," Sorensen later recalled.
That tone and that language—"ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country"—have made it the benchmark against which subsequent addresses have been measured. Uniquely on this list, Kennedy's speech did not occur at a time the country was facing imminent crisis (despite his declaration that he spoke during the "hour of maximum danger" for freedom), though the circumstances of the speech have helped it endure: He was the youngest elected president, speaking of "the torch [having] been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace…." And the speech came at a cultural tipping moment. "I don't think you would have felt in a Nixon inaugural in January, 1961 some kind of momentous shift of the generations," says Shesol. And, adds Dallek, author of the JFK biography An Unfinished Life, the speech gave the country "some new, fresh hope and optimism."
Like FDR's second inaugural, Kennedy's speech was also an eloquent expression of political philosophy, this one focused on foreign affairs. The declaration that "we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe" takes on a grim tone after the tragedy of the Vietnam War. But that rhetoric is also balanced by the language of internationalism, a desire for peace, and a hope for a "new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved." The economist John Kenneth Galbraith contributed a notion which would become one of the speech's best known passages: "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate."