Sunday, January 20, 2013

Best Inaugural Addresses in U.S. History

Every January 20th someone is set to take the oath of office as President of the United States and as our country looks to this individual for guidance and direction for our country and we look toward their inaugural address to help us understand what direction we will be heading. Over the past couple centuries the citizens of this country and the world have heard many speeches and many of them say the same basic things we hear from all great politicians. However there are seven inaugural addresses that stand out among all others, both because of circumstances by which they were given and the individual who delivered them. As always I have placed these in chronological order rather than any specific order of importance.

1) George Washington - First Inaugural Address - 1789: The inauguration address is not something mandated by the constitution or any law, it was something created, and like many other Executive Branch traditions, our first President of the United States George Washington is who to thank. Washington was not much for giving speeches and shied away from them at all costs however it is no surprise he recognized his new role and stepped up to give direction and understanding of what to expect. You must place yourself in the time period and realize that many people in the world saw absolute power corrupt absolutely and anyone who takes the reigns of power in a country usually takes advantage of that power. Washington's first inaugural address conveyed a humble attitude toward taking on such an important task that the "voice of my country" had given him. He knew he had to easy the people minds that the revolution was not fought for no reason. He was holding fast to the guides of the Constitution and even mentions the need for the passage of the Bill of Rights. He spoke about, "the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people." Truly there was no one greater at this time in our country to take on the task of being our first leader, our President then George Washington. 

2) Thomas Jefferson - First Inaugural Address - 1801: The election of 1800 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson has gone down in history as one of the bitterest, most divisive in American history. As Jefferson came to the podium on March 4, 1801 he was President of a country whose government changed hands from Federalist control to Republicans and the people were deeply divided politically. Jefferson knew this transfer of power must be handled carefully or the Union could fall apart. 
"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. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it. I know, indeed, that some honest men fear that a republican government can not be strong, that this Government is not strong enough; but would the honest patriot, in the full tide of successful experiment, abandon a government which has so far kept us free and firm on the theoretic and visionary fear that this Government, the world's best hope, may by possibility want energy to preserve itself? I trust not. I believe this, on the contrary, the strongest Government on earth. I believe it the only one where every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern. Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question."
Jefferson's speech was the first real inaugural speech to receive widespread public attention and set a precedent for the style in which future Presidents would follow. Jefferson's speech helped in healing the bitter feelings which came about thanks to the election. 

3) Abraham Lincoln - Second Inaugural Address - 1865: The Civil War had ravaged this country for four years and the end was finally in sight. Abraham Lincoln had won reelection and now the need for reconciliation was paramount to the future of our reunited nation. He knew that the burden of reuniting this broken country rested on his shoulders and with that in mind delivered his most important speech. 
"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the fight 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."
"Despite being in a position of great strength, Lincoln 'held out the olive branch to the defeated Confederacy at a time when very many people in the North were vowing to exact vengeance,' said H.W. Brands, a professor of history and government at the University of Texas at Austin" (CBCNews, Retrieved 1/18/2012) Sadly Lincoln would not be able to fulfill that peace and bring this country's pain to a quick and decisive end. One month later Lincoln was assassinated and the job of mending the country's wounds fell to his ill-equipped Vice-President Andrew Johnson.   

4) Theodore Roosevelt - Only Inaugural Address - 1905: One of the great and most fiery orators in our nation's history, TR only was given one opportunity for an inaugural address as his first term as President was not due to an election but rather the death of President William McKinley. As the twentieth century was dawning the United States was stepping into a new position on the world stage, as a global leader. TR recognized this and believed it the United States' responsibility to step willingly into this role. It was a new era for American politics and you can see that in his inaugural address.  
"Much has been given us, and much will rightfully be expected from us. We have duties to others and duties to ourselves; and we can shirk neither. We have become a great nation, forced by the fact of its greatness into relations with the other nations of the earth, and we must behave as beseems a people with such responsibilities. Toward all other nations, large and small, our attitude must be one of cordial and sincere friendship. We must show not only in our words, but in our deeds, that we are earnestly desirous of securing their good will by acting toward them in a spirit of just and generous recognition of all their rights. But justice and generosity in a nation, as in an individual, count most when shown not by the weak but by the strong. While ever careful to refrain from wrongdoing others, we must be no less insistent that we are not wronged ourselves. We wish peace, but we wish the peace of justice, the peace of righteousness. We wish it because we think it is right and not because we are afraid. No weak nation that acts manfully and justly should ever have cause to fear us, and no strong power should ever be able to single us out as a subject for insolent aggression."
Theodore Roosevelt's speech was one of the first to ever highlight the importance of foreign affairs. The speech demonstrates the transition this country was going through in the early twentieth century and how a leader like TR was willing and able to help this nation move in the right direction. 

5) Franklin D. Roosevelt - First Inaugural Address - 1933: Few economic crises in the world could possibly match that of the Great Depression which was sparked by the stock market crash of 1929. FDR's voice at this time was not one of an economic guru, banker, or long-time politician but rather as a father speaking to his children. As the nation was facing the most difficult economic situation it has ever seen, FDR was there to reassure his children, the American people, that he was there to help. He spoke of how with a little trust in him this economic crisis could be solved. 
"This is a day of national consecration. And I am certain that on this day 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 people 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."
Franklin Roosevelt was seeking a new kind of Presidency as he was facing a new kind of crisis. He spoke of seeking "broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency" and demanded "action and action now." Reporters wrote of tears streaming down the face's of those in attendance as his speech ended. Before people in the country saw little hope for the country's future however FDR was going to be the savior of America. 

6) John F Kennedy - Only Inaugural Speech - 1961: The election of John F Kennedy marked the beginning of a new era, a new generation was stepping into the presidency and the old was stepping away. Although it was not the first inaugural event televised, Harry S Truman's was actually the first, it was the first which captured the nation's attention, as a young energetic President who wanted the word to "go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans - born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage - and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world." Kennedy was now the leader of the free-world, the spokesman for democracy and he had to at this moment make sure Communist Russia understood his position of strength and resolve. Refusing to wear an overcoat despite the bitter cold temperatures, JFK challenged the nation to step up as a society in order to create a better tomorrow. 

"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. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."
Many try to tout Kennedy as this great champion for liberal Democrats however his rhetoric is much more conservative in thought. Kennedy's appeal lies in his conviction of right and wrong not partisan politics. At times he seemed like a conservative and then on the other hand he called himself a liberal. Kennedy shows in his inaugural speech that he speaks for the American people as a guardian of freedom and liberty which no other form of government will ever be allowed to take away here or anywhere else in this world. This inaugural address was meant not just for the American people but for all democratic nations in the world. 

7) Ronald Reagan - First Inaugural Address - 1981: Since the death of Kennedy in 1963 the United States was having difficultly in trusting their leaders. Johnson led the country into the Vietnam War, Nixon left office in disgrace, Ford was an un-elected President, and Carter was... well he was Jimmy Carter and at the end of his term we were in a deep economic crisis. In steps in the cowboy, Ronald Reagan, a former actor, and a man who is both genuine in what he says and charismatic in how he says it. Expectation were pretty high for Reagan who was known for giving an excellent speech, and he did not disappoint. He laid out his agenda for the country and put everyone on notice that a "new beginning" had arrived. 
"The economic ills we suffer have come upon us over several decades. They will not go away in days, weeks, or months, but they will go away. They will go away because we as Americans have the capacity now, as we've had in the past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom. In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we've been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden. The solutions we seek must be equitable, with no one group singled out to pay a higher price."

You would almost assume that listening to his perspective on government his plan was to do away with the federal government altogether however it was completely the opposite. "It's not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work - work 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." Reagan  believed that since the days of the New Deal the federal government was taking on too much responsibility to solve the problems in society and it resulted in the economic crisis they were in. Reagan inspired a country who had not been inspired much since Kennedy. 

All these Presidents had one thing in common that sets them above the rest, charisma. This trait allowed them to speak to the heart of the American people all during an important epoch in our nations history. However these speeches were only the first step, they then had to execute. All these men saw their daunting task ahead of them and immortalized their legacy not in these great inaugural speeches but the actions they took while in office. Fancy speeches come and go but the deeds by which you are judge will last from here to eternity. We should thank God for having been provided these men at the right time in history to lead us into a new stage or a new era of our country that in the wrong hands could have led us to ruin. 

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