In the days leading up to the impending inaugural, it seems a fitting time to revisit some great speeches of the past. The following is a brief look at four historic inaugural addresses that resonate today. Each speech is linked to a vocabulary list for extended learning.
Inauguration speeches are the opportunities Presidents have to paint The Big Picture about what they would like to accomplish during their administrations. The addresses are usually hopeful and wide-ranging, at least in part because the speeches are not weighed down with the specifics of governing, the details of legislation. There will be plenty of time for the compromises and potential disillusionment of the actual political process later. Inauguration is a time to talk about the dream of America and its potential.
The very first inaugural address, George Washington's of 1789, in many ways set a template for these events that is still followed today. Washington talks of all that America could be, and calls on divine forces to look after the country as it develops. One thing Washington did in his remarks that you will likely never see a modern president do, however, is question out loud whether he is fit for the job:
On the other hand, 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.
No modern president is likely to admit to being "peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies" and it is doubtful that anyone in this country, whether they voted for him or not, would want him to be so honest about his doubts on Inauguration Day. Even in the darkest periods of our history, inaugurations have been a time to embrace the bright side of things.
Perhaps the most poetic inauguration speech was given by Abraham Lincoln during his second inauguration in 1865. Having just seen the country through the resolution of the Civil War, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that Lincoln was trying to hold a fragile nation together with these words, and that a country that had lost so much was now looking to him for answers. Lincoln's speech ends this way:
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.
After all the ill will that helped cause and was further bred by that war, the President stood up and said that it was time to heal. Lincoln's rhetoric shines with the possibility of real progress, true reconciliation. However hopeful Lincoln may have been at the time, his words could not automatically silence the opposition or extinguish the hatred, for a little more than a month after delivering this speech, Lincoln was assassinated. Even if they could not help save his life, Lincoln's words may still have to power to soothe a deeply divided country's wounds, and they beautifully express what we wish for when we talk about a country coming together as one.
One way to unite the country is to establish a common foreign enemy, and these enemies are often invoked, in broad strokes, in inaugural addresses. For Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, that threat to global peace that all Americans had in common was communism. For Truman in particular, in 1949, the stakes could not have been higher, and he characterized the communist threat in a way that transcended even national borders:
It may be our lot to experience, and in large measure to bring about, a major turning point in the long history of the human race... In the pursuit of these aims, 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... That false philosophy is communism.
Much of Truman's inaugural address is a comparison of democracy and communism and while, again, the specifics are few, Truman's intent to combat communism could not be clearer. Apart from the details of this particular speech, inaugurations are when presidents outline mission statements — they enumerate agenda items that are especially important to them and make a moral case for why it should be important to the average American.
Like Truman framing the fight against communism as something that went beyond national borders, Bill Clinton also aimed beyond traditional political divisions in his second inaugural address in 1997. Pleading for an end to division and hatred, Clinton addressed the populace as not a collection of voters but as emotional individuals:
Fellow citizens, let us build that America, a nation ever moving forward toward realizing the full potential of all its citizens. Prosperity and power—yes, they are important, and we must maintain them. But let us never forget: The greatest progress we have made, and the greatest progress we have yet to make, is in the human heart. In the end, all the world's wealth and a thousand armies are no match for the strength and decency of the human spirit.
No one knows what Donald Trump's inauguration speech will consist of on January 20th, nor the tone it will take. Will it be like his rallies during the campaign, where he was off-the-cuff and somewhat strident, or will be more like his victory speech on election night, where he struck a more conciliatory tone? We will all have to wait and see. One thing we can be certain of, however, is that the President-elect has some amazing speeches to serve as models for his own inaugural message.
Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects.Click here to read other articles by Adam Cooper
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