By Teachers, For Teachers
Obama is famous for his oratory skills, and with economic and partisan turmoil still impacting American's lives, there's never been a better time for an uplifting speech from our nation's leader. To help the Speechmaker-in-Chief get a little inspiration--and to help some of our students learn their history--we've compiled a list of the five greatest inaugural addresses in American history, complete with clips and full transcripts of each.
Always begin at the beginning, right? If our first president hadn't given an inaugural address, it might never have become the tradition it is today. Washington's speech still stands out today for its humility. Washington didn't make demands of Congress or argue for his own policies; instead he expressed his confidence in Congress's ability and good nature. It might not be the most pithy speech a president has ever produced, but its importance is undeniable.
"In these honorable qualifications I behold the surest pledges that as on one side no local prejudices or attachments, no separate views nor party animosities, will misdirect the comprehensive and equal eye which ought to watch over this great assemblage of communities and interests, so, on another, that the foundation of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality, and the preeminence of free government be exemplified by all the attributes which can win the affections of its citizens and command the respect of the world."
Much of President Kennedy's inaugural speech addresses the Cold War, which was so present in the minds and fears of Americans at the time. However, the speech is remembered today first and foremost for Kennedy's words about the American character and civil life. Few words stand out in our nation's history so boldly as his famous call to service.
"In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility--I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it--and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country."
America's place in the world today is so prominent and so secure that students might forget that two hundred years ago we were a new nation, and that the principles of democracy were mostly untested. Thomas Jefferson's first inaugural address serves as a reminder that there was a time when the world wasn't sure that we would succeed. President Jefferson's speech is a celebration of the triumph of American democracy over the bitterness between divided political parties.
"But 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. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it."
In 1933, President Roosevelt took office amid the most severe economic depression in American history. His inaugural address not only set the stage for his presidency, but stirred the courage and confidence of the American people.
"This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory."
President Lincoln's second inaugural address, like many of the others on this list, was given during national crisis. Though the threat of the Cold War may have been greater and the pain of the Great Depression may hav lasted longer, no crisis has affected America as deeply as the Civil War. Lincoln's speech was brief, but written by a master--still the most moving and eloquent speaker to have ever risen to the Presidency. The address grapples with the evils of slavery and the necessity of war, and ends by looking toward a time of peace and tranquility that Lincoln himself wouldn't live to see.
"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."