The Five Most Memorable Inaugural Addresses

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Abraham Lincoln’s 2nd, 1865

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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.

Next: Franklin Roosevelt’s 1st, 1933

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