Closer Readings Commentary

Presidential Inaugurations: A Capitol Parade on a Cold Winter's Day

Our Constitution is so simple and practical that it is possible always to meet extraordinary needs by changes in emphasis and arrangement without loss of essential form. That is why our constitutional system has proved itself the most superbly enduring political mechanism the modern world has produced. It has met every stress of vast expansion of territory, of foreign wars, of bitter internal strife, of world relations.

—President Franklin D. Roosevelt, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933

(Available from the EDSITEment-reviewed American Presidents at the Miller Center, University of Virginia)

Every four years in the third week of January, Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., is lined with chilly spectators and red, white, and blue bunting. Americans arrive by the hundreds of thousands to watch the official procession slowly making its way to the Capitol building, where the newly elected or re-elected president will take the oath of office and be sworn in for the next four years. in 2008, record numbers came to witness the swearing in of the first African American president, Barack Obama. There is great anticipation for the inauguration of Donald Trump.

As President Clinton's former speechwriter Ted Widmer notes in an article "So Help Me God", the nation looks forward to the processions and the parades, "the jets streaking overhead, the swearing-in ceremony—and then, of course, the inaugural address, when the most powerful man in the world elucidates his vision for the next four years of history. What's not to love?" 

While some of these speeches are quickly forgotten, many are worth reading at least in part, and a few are notable works of American literature. What makes these speeches so memorable? According to Poltical Science Professor Matthew Dickinson, it's not so much the stirring words and phrase, as some of the most powerful speeches have been known for "simple declarative sentences". For example, FDR's "We have nothing to fear but fear itself" or Ronald Reagan's  "In the present crisis, government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem."

The power of these statements comes from “their ability to isolate the transcendent issue of the day" in a way that resonates with most Americans. There is general consensus that the finest speeches are the first inaugural addresses of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy.  Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural, considered the greatest of these speeches, appears on many required reading lists for high school students and is recommend reading in the new Common Core English Language Arts Standards. 

George Washington

The presidential inauguration didn’t always take place in January. Until the 1930s, the inauguration was scheduled for March 4th (or the 5th, if the 4th fell on a Sunday). Students might be surprised to hear that the inauguration of George Washington was delayed until April 30, 1789, and that it was held in New York City, then the nation’s capital.

Setting the pattern for 19th-century inaugural speeches, Washington didn’t delve into policy matters but appealed to the basic principles of the Constitution that would govern his administration. Knowing how much was riding on this attempt at republican government, he insisted that “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."

Students can view a digital version of George Washington’s inaugural address of April 30, 1789 at the National Archives. EDSITEment has many lessons on George Washington, including how his presidency set the precedent for future occupants of this office. In George Washington : The Living Symbol, under Activity 4, there are a series of question to guide a close reading of the address.  For informed analysis on George Washington and his presidency, you may wish to visit the EDSITEment-reviewed American President.

Thomas Jefferson

On March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson was the first president to take his oath of office in Washington D.C. After being elected in one of the nation's closest and most tumultuous contests, Jefferson sought to heal the breach between Federalist and Republican partisans and to restore unity to the country by reaching out to his political opponents. In a speech full of memorable lines, the most famous is: "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.”

The third president presented his case not as an attempt to win support for a particular set of policies of his party, but rather as an effort to instruct the people in, and fortify their attachment to, true republican political principles. While his interpretation of fundamental republican principles in fact meshed with the policies of the Republican Party, his conciliatory rhetoric embraced both parties by narrating a single national story, one that the heroes of the Revolutionary generation would recognize and approve.

The form of inaugural address perfected by Jefferson proved a lasting model throughout the century. Subsquent addresses consistently attempted to show how the actions of the new administrations would conform to Constitutional and republican principles.

The address is available at the NEH-supported Papers of Thomas Jefferson, which includes a fascinating scholarly commentary on the changes Jefferson made to the text. EDSITEment’s curriculum unit The First American Party System: Events, Issues, and Positions covers the contest that led to Jefferson's election.

Abraham Lincoln

Both of President Abraham Lincoln’s inaugurations came at some of the darkest moments in U.S. history. In the four months that separated his election victory in November of 1860, and his first inauguration on March 4, 1861, seven southern states seceded from the Union, setting in motion the events that would lead to the Civil War.

The central theme of Lincoln's address is the preservation of the Union. Recognizing Southern anxieties about his intentions as president, he insisted that these anxieties were unfounded: he had no plan to interfere with slavery in the states where it existed. Having argued that the South has no just cause nor right to dissolve the Union, Lincoln argued that secession was "the essence of anarchy."

He concludes with two powerful paragraphs. In the first he put the responsibility for war squarely on the South

In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to "preserve, protect, and defend it."

Yet, the concluding paragraph strikes a conciliatory tone and reaffirms Lincoln’s almost mystical faith in the Union:

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 battle-field 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

(A close reading of this speech for your classroom is available at The First Inaugural Address (1861)—Defending the American Union.)

Four years later, the war was nearing its completion and the Confederacy was in shambles. Lincoln adopted a humble approach when he stated the Administration's view of the war and the future of the Union. The newly re-elected president sought to unite the American people by interpreting the conflict as a divine judgment upon both sides of the war. Lincoln thought this required a common view of the wrong of slavery, as well as a common acceptance of the ravages of the Civil War as due punishment from the Almighty for the national exploitation of black slaves.

"Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort." Frederick Douglass remarked soon after hearing this speech on March 4, 1865. The abolitionist orator, editor (and former slave) had met Lincoln only twice and for most of the war was a fierce critic of the president's policies. But he praised Lincoln's four-paragraph speech as sounding "more like a sermon than like a state paper."

For a close reading of Lincoln’s inaugural address, see EDSITEment's The First Inaugural Address (1861)—Defending the American Union, and The Second Inaugural Address (1865)—Restoring the American Union.

If you would like more information on the life and presidency of Abraham Lincoln you may wish to visit EDSITEment-reviewed American President.


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Franklin Roosevelt

Abraham Lincoln was not the only president to preside over a great war; Woodrow Wilson was to do so in the second decade of the 20th century. But a greater crisis was faced by Franklin Roosevelt in peace time. In 1933, when he took office, the nation had already endured more than three years of economic depression. Roosevelt set about to prepare the country to accept an extraordinary expansion of federal power.

Roosevelt recognized that the programs he was about to introduce for congressional legislative action were unprecedented in peace time. In his address, he underscored the adaptability of the Constitution to meet the crises of modern industrial society. For a close reading of the speech, see the National Archives Teaching with Documents: FDR’s First Inaugural Address Declaring War on the Great Depression.  The Gilder Lehrman Institute recently posted Franklin D. Roosevelt's First Inaugural Address: A Common Core Unit.

John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy’s speech in 1961 is famous for its eloquence and for its call to duty: "Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” The young president spoke to the nation after a close, divisive election and at a time when the American people were growing increasingly fearful of a long, drawn-out cold war.

Yet instead of reassuring his audience by minimizing the dangers, Kennedy warned of a long, difficult struggle, emphasized differences between the United States and its enemies and outlined the specific responsibilities and obligations of the United States and its citizens. For a close reading of the speech see John F. Kennedy, “Inaugural Address,” January 20, 1961.

Taking the Oath

Article II, Section I, Clause B of the Constitution of the United States, which is available online from the National Archives, states:

Before he enter on the execution of his office, he shall take the following oath or affirmation:

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States.

The history of the oath is reviewed  on the official website of the inauguration. Students can consult the vast collection of images available from EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory Project at the Library of Congress as a way of viewing the ceremony over time. Ask students to view the following series of images of presidents taking the oath of office:

What is similar about each of the ceremonies captured in these images? How do they differ? Why do you think these changes have occurred? Why do you think that certain aspects of the ceremony (such as the words of the oath) have stayed the same?


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Parents and educators might wish to introduce the ideas of this feature using short activities that ask students to think about the meaning of the history of presidential inaugurations in the United States.

1. Speech! Speech!

Have your students choose two inaugural addresses—either by different presidents or by the same president initiating two different terms. Have them compare and contrast the two speeches. They may use any of the inaugural addresses discussed in this lesson, or they may research additional addresses available from the EDSITEment-reviewed American President.

What concerns do these speeches address? Are they similar or different? How?

  • What vision does this president set for his term in office? What are his hopes and goals?
  • What role does the Constitution or other statement of fundamental political principles play in the addresses?
  • What is the tone of each of the two speeches?

Next, have students read about the terms in office of the presidents whose inaugural addresses they have just read. Have your students answer the following questions:

  • Was this president able to achieve the goals he set out in his inaugural address?
  • Did the concerns he noted in his address prove to be difficulties during his presidency? Was he able to overcome those difficulties? How?

2. Inaugural History

How does the presidential inauguration reflect the historical situation of the country? Ask students to research the collections of the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory Project for primary documents connected to presidential inaugurations throughout U.S. history.

Students might compare a photograph of Lyndon B. Johnson taking the oath of office in 1963 immediately after the assassination of President John. F. Kennedy with a photograph of President Johnson being sworn in after his own election to the highest office in 1965. Another comparison might be to view a photograph of President Herbert J. Hoover’s inauguration six months before the crash of the stock market on October 29, 1929 with a photograph of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration in the midst of the Great Depression in 1933. Ask: do the images of these events reflect what was happening in the country at large? Have students write an essay explaining their findings.

 *  Only six times in the nation's history has the constitutionally-mandated date for a Presidential Inauguration fallen on a Sunday. January 20, 2013 will be the seventh time, and following historical precedent, the public ceremony will be held at the U.S. Capitol on Monday, January 21, 2013. In a tradition that dates back to 1917, the White House will likely arrange a private swearing in before noon on January 20, 2013. See the official website of the inauguration for further details and a comprehensive account of the elements of the ceremony. 

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