Above: Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address
Probably the most important speech ever given by any President of the United States was his first official one. While all the subsequent addresses, some in the thousands, related to situations, circumstances, and events, the Inaugural Address has an importance that is all its own. Not only does it define where the country is at any given time, but it likewise sets a follow-on definition for what, often precisely, he intends to do about it. This is more than just an agenda, it usually proclaims, in the most grandeur and astute language, goals and intentions that deliberately appeal to the basic instincts of the electorate, while drawing upon the fundamental virtues of the Republic from the beginning.
Inaugurals that fail to inspire are failures. Inaugurals that are forgotten also fail. Thus, the best Inaugurals are those that inspire and are remembered. Drawing upon the Inaugural Addresses of all forty-five Presidents, plus several by many (one president four times) we can apply both of these two criteria to select the top ten since the beginning, in 1789.
While the task is fully subjective, there is also a general consensus about the subject. So it’s fairly easy not to go wrong. The trick is to select the ones that have lasting value for both the past and future of the country – those that people will remember and look back and say “why don’t we do what he said.”
The following rank, in order, may be subjective, but, objectively, it should be a criterion for either Joe Biden or Donald Trump when they approach the podium on January 20th. Neither can help be aware that they are going to be judged by what their predecessors said, and they had better be up to the task. Otherwise, it’s “all downhill from here.”
1. Abraham Lincoln, 1865
The Civil War was about over: four years of unrelenting tragedy, 720,000 dead soldiers. The last thing Lincoln wanted was more of the same. His appeal (in 700 words) was to show “malice toward none, charity for all.”
Today, we are tearing down the nation’s history and its images, showing “malice toward all, charity for none.”
2. Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933
With the Great Depression now into its fourth year, widespread unemployment, banks closing left and right, FDR offered hope with “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Rather than offering new schemes, he offered inspiration and asked for authority “as if we were invaded by a foreign foe.”
Amidst today’s pandemic and cultural divisions, where are the inspiration and hope coming from?
3. John F. Kennedy, 1961
With the Cold War raging around the world, with the Soviet Union ahead in technology, with Communism now in the Caribbean, JFK rallied the nation, noting that “the torch has been passed” and placed the burden on the shoulders of his electorate: “‘ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Would anyone dare that today?
4. Thomas Jefferson, 1801
With party differences splitting the nation in half (as warned by Washington), Jefferson proclaimed that “We have called by different names brethren of the same principles. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
But he had politicians; we have to deal against “colors,” red, blue, black, white, “people of color” (“all” colors).
5. Ronald Reagan, 1981
With the Cold War into its fourth decade, a nuclear policy called “MAD,” Vietnam a disaster, Jimmy Carter proclaiming “malaise,” Reagan, like others before him, appealed to the “people” for the answers, both home and abroad: “Today we can declare: Government is not the problem, and government is not the solution. We, the American people, we are the solution.”
Can we speak of a “people” in the singular today?
6. Woodrow Wilson, 1917
The greatest war in history was in its fourth year. He had campaigned on U.S. neutrality, but events forced Wilson’s hand to prepare Americans for their first venture as a global power, a reality that is still ongoing today. “There can be no turning back,” he offered, “our own fortunes as a nation are involved whether we would have it so or not.”
Again, “fortunes as a nation” appears nostalgic today.
7. Theodore Roosevelt, 1905
“TR” harnessed the nation for world leadership, beginning in the Western Hemisphere and extending outward, with the Spanish War, Panama Canal, the Philippines, the “Great White Fleet.” “Upon the success of our experiment much depends,” he announced, “not only as regards our own welfare, but as regards the welfare of mankind.”
Today, the war would be “militarism,” the canal “imperialism,” the Philippines “colonialism,” and the Fleet “racism.” (Take any noun, add “ism” and, behold, you have life explained.)
8. Abraham Lincoln, 1861
In his first Inaugural, Lincoln tried at the last minute to avoid the oncoming war. He failed, but his words still echo as a plea for unity lest the “roof cave in.” It caved all right, but, despite his best effort to appeal to “the better angels of our nature. …We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”
Good advice for any future, Lincoln.
9. Harry S. Truman, 1949
After winning his first (and only) presidential election, Harry Truman reminded the nation of its newly-found global responsibilities and of the vast differences between ourselves and our enemies (“exceptionalism”). “The United States and other like-minded nations,” he declared, “find themselves directly opposed by a regime with contrary aims and a totally different concept of life.”
Question: can the same point be offered today?
10. Warren G. Harding, 1921
With the world war over, Americans questioned the bitter aftermath, without resolution or reason. Warren G. Harding promised “Normalcy” and a return to basics. “Our supreme task,” he announced, “is the resumption of our onward, normal way. Envy and jealousy would have no soil for their menacing development, and revolution would be without the passion that engenders it.”
What happened to that country?
Left open, since no immediate candidate arises.
Will get back on January 21, 2021.