January 21st, 2013
01:06 PM ET

The six best inaugural addresses

By James Lindsay, CFR

Editor’s note: James Lindsay is senior vice president and director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This entry of Water’s Edge was first published here. The views expressed are his own.

Today, Barack Obama got to do what only 16 presidents have done – give a second inaugural address. His first inaugural address was, like most inaugural addresses, unremarkable. Perhaps the problem was that expectations were too high given his well-earned reputation for being a great public speaker. His audience was expecting soaring oratory, and he delivered a solid tour of major issues facing the United States that even some of his supporters found to be a “hodgepodge.”

The Washington Post reported that Obama had been at work for weeks on his second inaugural address, “writing out draft after draft of the speech on yellow legal pads.” John Faverau, the chief White House speechwriter who pitched in on the first inaugural address, was helping to shape the second address as well. Obama’s goal was simple: craft a speech that creates fresh political momentum for his second term. That is no small ambition in today’s highly polarized America.

Here is my list of the six best inaugural addresses along with a famous passage from each:

1. Thomas Jefferson (1801). Jefferson took office as the nation’s first political parties were just taking shape, marking the first time that the presidency passed from one party to another. Jefferson understood the moment and reminded his fellow citizens that more united the young nation than divided it.

We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.

2. Abraham Lincoln (1861). As the United States descended into the darkness of the Civil War, Lincoln held out hope for his nation. He urged North and South to settle their differences within the Union rather than break it apart. His call went unheeded, but not because of a lack of eloquence.

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

3. Abraham Lincoln (1865). Lincoln had good reason to be bitter as he prepared to take the oath of office for the second time. Thousands of his countrymen had died on the battlefield, and many thousands more had seen their lives uprooted. Many of his supporters wanted him to be unsparing in his treatment of the soon-to-be-defeated Confederacy. Rather than invoking themes of punishment and revenge, however, Lincoln delivered a speech of incredible generosity and wisdom.

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.

4. Theodore Roosevelt (1905). TR took the oath of office just as the United States came into its own as an economic and world power. He encouraged his fellow citizens to recognize their good fortune to inherit the hard work of the generations before them, and he called on them to undertake the hard work necessary to keep the United States a great power. In all, it was the inaugural address one would expect from a man who wouldn’t let a bullet stop him from giving a speech.

Never before have men tried so vast and formidable an experiment as that of administering the affairs of a continent under the forms of a Democratic republic….Upon the success of our experiment much depends, not only as regards our own welfare, but as regards the welfare of mankind.

5. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933). FDR took office during the depth of the Great Depression. Facing a country gripped with uncertainty and self-doubt, he understood that he needed to restore not just the country’s economic confidence but also its psychological confidence. He succeeded.

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.

6. John F. Kennedy (1961). As the 1960s dawned, Americans worried that their epic victory in World War II was about to be eclipsed by the inexorable march of global communism. JFK responded to these fears with a sweeping pledge that America would bear any burden in the defense of liberty and a rousing call for Americans to support their country.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.

No list of the best inaugural addresses ever would be complete without mentioning which president delivered the worst one ever. You might think that the winner in this category would be William Henry Harrison. He took two hours to deliver an 8,000-word speech outdoors, without a hat or coat, on a bitterly cold and snowy day. Pity the poor crowd that had to listen to that.

But no, that performance only earns William Henry Harrison the runner-up prize. The worst inaugural speech ever given was by James Buchanan. Why? Because he used his 1857 speech to complain that the country was so consumed in debating slavery that it was ignoring other, more important issues. That reveals a lot about why Buchanan tops virtually every list of the worst presidents in American history.

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soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    Obama's speech writer John Faverau did let himself inspired by Thomas Jefferson's sense of unity and he added: "We're all Americans!" to Obama's inaugural address.

    January 22, 2013 at 6:01 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      William Henry Harrison braved the chilly cold weather and refused to wear a hat or coat. His cold led to pneumonia. He slipped into a coma and died in April 1841, the first president to die in office, less than 2 months after his inauguration.

      January 22, 2013 at 7:15 am | Reply
  2. stewartiii

    NewsBusters: Media Hail JFK's 'Poetry,' Ignore That His Agenda Didn't Match His Words

    http://newsbusters.org/blogs/mike-bates/2013/01/22/media-hail-jfks-poetry-ignore-his-agenda-didnt-match-his-words

    January 22, 2013 at 9:25 pm | Reply
  3. salino333

    Hearing Obama's speech I thought it was a very good one. It is not accidential, that in times of economic crises and global polarisation a president talkes about equality and tries to set values for the dignity of every single person.
    Individualism, social values and humanity are values that are too often neglected in crises. To have a personal biography, a carreer and the possibility to attend school and get education – many people are excluded from that, because of costs and the lack of support to take personal steps. There are too many doubts, obstacles and fear to fail. It is not accidental that most Germany's newspapers and online boards always reports a negative connotation in the headline about Obama's doing!

    January 25, 2013 at 6:03 am | Reply

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