The 10 most famous inaugural addresses

January 18, 2013

When President Obama stands in front of the U.S. Capitol on Monday to deliver his second inaugural address, the task before him will be considerable.

President Obama's first inaugural address.
President Obama's first inaugural address.

He must soar rhetorically while also providing some specific signals of what he wants his second term to look like. He must balance the triumphant nature of the event -- a second victory party for his supporters -- with the need to try to bring the country together. (Karen Tumulty, the Fix's awesome colleague, says that the speech has to be "celebratory and conciliatory." That's a good way to put it.)

Then there's the expectations that accompany all inaugural addresses but most especially one delivered by Obama, who is regarded as the pre-eminent political orator of his generation. Hundreds of thousands of people will be gathered on the National Mall to hear Obama's words and no matter what he says it will immediately become a major part of the historical record of his presidency.

That's no easy task -- and the challenge of inaugural speeches (particular second inaugurals) is why there haven't been as many memorable addresses as you might think.

Below we rank the ten most famous inaugural addresses -- a somewhat subjective measure that includes some of the best speeches with some that were memorable for other reasons. This post is meant to be the start of a conversation not the end of it.  So, what did we get right? What did we miss? What's ranked too high? What's ranked too low?  The comments section awaits.

To the Friday Line!

10) William Henry Harrison's first inaugural (1841): Harrison's inaugural address was less notable for what he said than for how much he said. Clocking in at over 8,000(!) words, the speech took Harrison almost two hours to deliver.  That he did so without a coat or hat in freezing weather was an even bigger mistake. He contracted pneumonia and died 30 days later. Harrison's lasting legacy? His spot in the Simpsons' "Mediocre Presidents" song (starts at the 3:45 mark in the clip below).

9) George W. Bush's first inaugural (2001): After a lengthy Florida recount process that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Bush was declared the victor more than a month after Election Day. But he was left to address a divided nation, as Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote and, in the eyes of many supporters, should have been giving the inaugural address. The protests surrounding Bush's inauguration were the largest in about 30 years.

8) Woodrow Wilson's second inaugural (1917): After winning reelection with the slogan "He kept us out of war," Wilson signaled the end of U.S. neutrality in World War I, declaring in his second inaugural address: "We are provincials no longer. The tragic events of the thirty months of vital turmoil through which we have just passed have made us citizens of the world. There can be no turning back. Our own fortunes as a nation are involved whether we would have it so or not."

7) Harry Truman's first inaugural (1949): Officially marking the start of his first full four-year term, Truman sought to draw a clear contrast between democracy and communism at the dawn of the Cold War, declaring: "The United States and other like-minded nations find themselves directly opposed by a regime with contrary aims and a totally different concept of life."

6) Ronald Reagan's first inaugural (1981) and Bill Clinton's second inaugural (1997): Sixteen years after the Republican declared "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem," the Democrat proclaimed: "Today we can declare: Government is not the problem, and government is not the solution. We—the American people—we are the solution."

5)  Barack Obama's first inaugural (2009): This speech is remembered more for the historical moment it marked -- the nation's first black president -- than for any specific piece of rhetoric on Obama's part.  Also, it was really, really cold.

4) Thomas Jefferson's first inaugural (1801): More than two hundred  years have passed since this address, though President Obama might find some inspiration from it for the current time, with a gap between Republicans and Democrats that could hardly seem wider. Addressing that divide, Jefferson said: "We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists."

An undated charcoal drawing of Thomas Jefferson. (AP Photo)
An undated charcoal drawing of Thomas Jefferson. (AP Photo)

3) John Kennedy's first inaugural (1961): Kennedy's win over Richard Nixon seemed to signal a new era in American politics. JFK played into that idea in his inaugural address -- "the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans" -- while also trying to rally the country together after an incredibly close election.  JFK's speech also included one of the most famous lines in all of political rhetoric: "Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country."

2) Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first inaugural (1933): Roosevelt's declaration that "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," was one of the most memorable quotes of the 20th Century, and inaugural addresses, overall.

1. Lincoln's second inaugural (1865): The most famous inaugural speech is among the shortest ever delivered at just 700 words. The historical significance of the address was massive: the Civil War was well on its way to ending and Lincoln would be assassinated less than a month after the speech. And, the rhetoric Lincoln summoned was some of the most powerful ever employed in politics. Here's his closing line: "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." (Make sure to read Garry Wills' piece on the significance of Lincoln's second inaugural.)

Want to craft your own inaugural address? Learn about the key components most presidents incorporate in them and come up with own with this fun project by our graphics team.  

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Sean Sullivan · January 18, 2013