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Inaugural Addresses Through History

By Jason Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 19, 2001

George W. Bush assumes the presidency after the most contentious and disputed election since 1876. But history shows that even a president elected without a mandate or in trying times can utilize the opportunity afforded by his inaugural address to set the tone for a successful administration.

Collected below are some of the country's most notable inaugural speeches, as well as addresses from which Bush is likely to draw ideas and inspiration.

George Washington | Thomas Jefferson | John Quincy Adams | William Henry Harrison | Abraham Lincoln | Rutherford B. Hayes | Franklin Delano Roosevelt | John F. Kennedy | Ronald Reagan | George Bush | Bill Clinton

Washington became the first and only president unanimously selected by the Electoral College and delivered the country's first inaugural address before a joint session of Congress. Having fondly planned on retirement, Washington gave a humble address reflective of a distrust in concentrated power and expressed the "greatest anxieties" over being elected but swore to serve the new country he helped found.
"...The magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most experienced of her citizens a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications, could not but overwhelm with despondence one who (inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpracticed in the duties of civil administration) ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies."  Full Text
Eschewing the modern-day standard of using the inaugural address as an opportunity to lay out a sweeping vision, Washington's second inaugural speech is history's shortest, coming in at just more than 100 words.
"I am again called upon by the voice of my country to execute the functions of its Chief Magistrate. When the occasion proper for it shall arrive, I shall endeavor to express the high sense I entertain of this distinguished honor, and of the confidence which has been reposed in me by the people of united America."  Full Text
Regarded as one of America's greatest presidents, Jefferson assumed the office after an Electoral College deadlock sent the 1800 election to the House of Representatives, where Jefferson won by a single vote after 30 hours of debate. In his speech, Jefferson—who was the first president to take the oath of office in Washington—called on the country to "unite in common efforts for the common good."
"I repair, then, fellow-citizens, to the post you have assigned me. With experience enough in subordinate offices to have seen the difficulties of this the greatest of all, I have learnt to expect that it will rarely fall to the lot of imperfect man to retire from this station with the reputation and the favor which bring him into it."  Full Text
John Quincy
The similarities between the elections of George W. Bush and Adams are eerily similar. Both sons of former presidents, each won the White House after a closely controversial election in which neither man won the popular vote. The House of Representatives decided the victory for Adams, who directly addressed the "peculiar circumstances" of the election in his inaugural address.
"Fellow-citizens, you are acquainted with the peculiar circumstances of the recent election, which have resulted in affording me the opportunity of addressing you at this time. You have heard the exposition of the principles which will direct me in the fulfillment of the high and solemn trust imposed upon me in this station. Less possessed of your confidence in advance than any of my predecessors, I am deeply conscious of the prospect that I shall stand more and oftener in need of your indulgence."  Full Text
Harrison's inaugural address is perhaps the most peculiarly tragic of any president. At a staggering one hour and 45 minutes, his speech is the longest in history, yet Harrison served the shortest time in office. He delivered his address in a snowstorm, then spent time greeting well-wishers later in the day. Just one month later, Harrison died of pneumonia.
"Called from a retirement which I had supposed was to continue for the residue of my life to fill the chief executive office of this great and free nation, I appear before you, fellow-citizens, to take the oaths which the Constitution prescribes as a necessary qualification for the performance of its duties..."  Full Text
Along with his own Gettsyburg Address, Lincoln's second inaugural address is considered one of history's greatest speeches and stands on its own as a classic piece of American literature. Addressing the pains of the Civil War, Lincoln openly prayed to God that "this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away." Lincoln would be assassinated less than two months later.
"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."  Full Text
B. Hayes
Rutherford B. Hayes, like George W. Bush, was elected president without winning the popular vote. In the election of 1876, Democrat Samuel Tilden garnered a majority of popular votes but fell one vote short of claiming a majority in the Electoral College. Twenty disputed electoral votes kept hopes alive for Republican Hayes until the week before the inauguration when a fifteen-member Electoral Commission appointed by Congress voted 8 to 7 to give all of the disputed votes to Hayes, who lost his reelection bid in 1880.
"I wish now, when every motive for misrepresentation has passed away, to repeat what was said before the election, trusting that my countrymen will candidly weigh and understand it, and that they will feel assured that the sentiments declared in accepting the nomination for the Presidency will be the standard of my conduct in the path before me..."  Full Text
Roosevelt, America's longest-serving president, made his first inaugural address his most memorable. With the country in the throes of the Great Depression, FDR delivered a powerful speech to a downtrodden country, rallying national morale by pledging "to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe."
"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."  Full Text
John F.
Like George W. Bush, JFK won the presidency over an incumbent vice president by a painfully close margin in a race often thought to have been marred by voting irregularites. But Kennedy created a mandate with a stirring inaugural speech that proclaimed "the torch has been passed to a new generation" and endures as one of history's best addresses.
"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. ...And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country."  Full Text
When Reagan assumed office amidst a stagnant economy and low American morale, he brought with him some of the sharpest anti-government rhetoric of any modern president. Reagan used his first address to appeal to the individual spirit, declaring that "government is not the solution to our problem."
"All of us need to be reminded that the federal government did not create the States; the States created the federal government. Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it is not my intention to do away with government. It is, rather, to make it workówork with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it."  Full Text
George Bush
Assuming the presidency from the still-popular Reagan, the nation's first President Bush delivered an inaugural speech heavily reflective of the time. As communism began to collapse and the Cold War ended, Bush proclaimed the "day of the dictator is over. The totalitarian era is passing."
"A new breeze is blowing, and a nation refreshed by freedom stands ready to push on. There is new ground to be broken, and new action to be taken. There are times when the future seems thick as a fog; you sit and wait, hoping the mists will lift and reveal the right path. But this is a time when the future seems a door you can walk right through into a room called tomorrow."  Full Text
Bill Clinton
After 12 years of Reagan-Bush Republicanism, Clinton culminated his improbable White House victory with an inaugural address promising "dramatic change" in Washington and reflecting the swell of optimism that greeted his arrival in the capital.
"Thomas Jefferson believed that to preserve the very foundations of our nation, we would need dramatic change from time to time. Well, my fellow citizens, this is our time. Let us embrace it. Our democracy must be not only the envy of the world but the engine of our own renewal. There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America."  Full Text

© 2001 The Washington Post Company

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