Know Your Inaugurals
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
"Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."
Some of the most stirring presidential quotes in this country's 240-year history come from inaugural addresses. Our library has some great books that are just devoted to the speeches and the events that surrounded them. Check one out and relive some of the best speeches in American history.
All I'm saying is that the next president has a lot to live up to come January 20.
Adams Vs.Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 by John Ferling
The election of 1800 was ridiculously ugly. Like 2016 ugly. I'm not even going to repeat some of the accusations that John Adams (a Federalist) and Thomas Jefferson (a Democrat) hurled at each other. The vote was so tight it ended up going to the House. The country was fairly disgusted by partisan politics by the time the election was over. Jefferson's inaugural address needed to reunite the country and reset the tone for his new administration. Fortunately, no one has ever accused Jefferson of being a bad writer. Ferling's book is a fascinating look at a brutal, dispiriting election and it would be funny if it wasn't so familiar.
"Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions. During the throes and convulsions of the ancient world, during the agonizing spasms of infuriated man, seeking through blood and slaughter his long-lost liberty, it was not wonderful that the agitation of the billows should reach even this distant and peaceful shore; that this should be more felt and feared by some and less by others, and should divide opinions as to measures of safety. 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."
Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural by Ronald C. White
A speech so good it's carved in marble at the Lincoln Memorial, President Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address was given at the tail end of the Civil War. Ronald C. White examines the speech politically and poetically and gives the reader context in which it was written.
"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty 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, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
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."
The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope by Jonathan Alter
Jonathan Alter's book covers the writing of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's (FDR) most famous inaugural address (from 1933, the "fear itself" speech) and all of the people who made contributions. It also follows FDR through his first 100 days in office, as his administration works to pull the country out of the Great Depression.
"I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our Nation impels. 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. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days."
Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America by Thurston Clarke
President John F. Kennedy tends to get over-romanticized a bit (understandably), but his fiery inauguration address deserves every ounce of praise it gets. (If you get a chance, check it out on YouTube.) In Ask Not, Thurston Clarke examines Kennedy's writing process for the speech and examines what his life and his world were like before and during the inauguration. And Sinatra's in it too.
"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."
The Inaugural Address 2009 by Barack Obama
This book is pretty bare-bones. It's is the text of Obama's first inaugural address (which is another one you really should watch as well) along with Lincoln's first and second inaugural addresses, "The Gettysburg Address", and Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance." (The preface mentions that Lincoln and Emerson are writers that Obama admires.) Unlike Ask Not and Lincoln's Greatest Speech, there is no analysis of the text, which is a shame. If you do a little research, you'll find that the speech is full of references to the Bible, American history, and even the 1936 Fred Astaire movie Swing Time.
"Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions, greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.
This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week, or last month, or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."
Honorable Mention: William Henry Harrison by Gail Collins
Poor William Henry Harrison died partially as a result of his inaugural address. (The theory goes: two hours + January + no coat or hat = pneumonia.) Therefore, it's nice to spare a thought for him on Inauguration Day. If you want to go beyond that, you could read his 8444 word speech, or you could read the 125-page biography by Gail Collins, which is a quick read and gives you a good idea of what kind of president he would have been.
"The danger to all well-established free governments arises from the unwillingness of the people to believe in its existence or from the influence of designing men diverting their attention from the quarter whence it approaches to a source from which it can never come. This is the old trick of those who would usurp the government of their country. In the name of democracy they speak, warning the people against the influence of wealth and the danger of aristocracy. History, ancient and modern, is full of such examples. Caesar became the master of the Roman people and the senate under the pretense of supporting the democratic claims of the former against the aristocracy of the latter; Cromwell, in the character of protector of the liberties of the people, became the dictator of England, and Bolivar possessed himself of unlimited power with the title of his country's liberator. There is, on the contrary, no instance on record of an extensive and well-established republic being changed into an aristocracy. The tendencies of all such governments in their decline is to monarchy, and the antagonist principle to liberty there is the spirit of faction—a spirit which assumes the character and in times of great excitement imposes itself upon the people as the genuine spirit of freedom, and, like the false Christs whose coming was foretold by the Savior, seeks to, and were it possible would, impose upon the true and most faithful disciples of liberty. It is in periods like this that it behooves the people to be most watchful of those to whom they have intrusted power. And although there is at times much difficulty in distinguishing the false from the true spirit, a calm and dispassionate investigation will detect the counterfeit, as well by the character of its operations as the results that are produced."
Some presidents have chosen to have poets recite poems at their inauguration. The tradition started in 1961, when Robert Frost recited "The Gift Outright" at JFK's inauguration. (Included in the book John F. Kennedy: the Inaugural Address.) Here are all the inaugural poets since Frost:
- 1993 - Maya Angelou "On the Pulse of the Morning" (for President Clinton)
- 1997 - Miller Williams "Of History and Hope" (for President Clinton)
- 2009 - Elizabeth Alexander "Praise Song for the Day" (for President Obama)
- 2013 - Richard Blanco "One Today" (for President Obama)
Also, if you get a chance, check out some of the inauguration memorabilia at the Washingtoniana division of the MLK Library!