Some of the most powerful political statements in American history appear in the inaugural addresses of our presidents. In crises and in moments of social and cultural change, in wartime and peace, the president we have elected speaks directly to us of his vision and his policies. In this issue of History Now, we look at five remarkable inaugural addresses that reflect critical moments in our national history, each delivered by men willing to accept the heavy burdens of leadership.
Phillip Hamilton’s “‘No Event Could Have Filled Me with Greater Anxieties’: George Washington and the First Inaugural Address” reminds us how precedent setting our first president was. Anxious that his lack of administrative experience might make his task as the executive of a new nation difficult, Washington nevertheless proved he was as expert at statesmanship as he was on the battlefield. As Hamilton notes, Washington established the tradition of inaugural addresses; he guided his successors in making reference to Providence’s special concern for America; he set the precedent of a focus on large and unifying themes rather than calls for specific legislation; and he used the speech, as others who followed him in office would do, to confirm the superiority of representative government and individual liberties.
In “Lincoln’s Second Inaugural,” Lewis E. Lehrman analyzes a speech familiar to—and admired by—Americans everywhere. In it the President who served the nation during its greatest crisis, the Civil War, offers his hope for restoration, reconciliation, and a new life for emancipated men, women, and children. His goal, as historians such as Lehrman note, was to bind together a divided nation. His call to Americans to act “with malice toward none; with charity toward all,” remains as moving today as it was at war’s end.
FDR’s first inaugural—with its famous “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”—is the twentieth century’s most famous presidential address. However, as Davis W. Houck reveals in his essay, “FDR’s First Inaugural Address,” Raymond Moley deserves considerable credit for writing these words that gave solace and hope to a nation facing the most devastating economic depression in its history. Houck takes us through Moley’s months of drafting and redrafting of the address until—after an assassination attempt on the President-elect and Moley’s own miraculous survival of a plane crash—he produced the speech we know. As Houck notes, FDR pledged to tell the nation the truth, no matter how grim that truth might be. The result was an overwhelmingly positive response from the Americans who heard him deliver an historic talk of fewer than 2,000 words.
Michael Nelson’s “John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address” analyzes the impact of a speech by the youngest person ever to serve as our president. Many Americans still alive today remember responding to the key theme of that talk: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Like FDR, Kennedy called on one of his advisors, Ted Sorensen, to help him craft this inaugural call for patriotic civic engagement. But, as Nelson points out, the bulk of the speech focused on foreign policy and diplomatic goals.
In “A More Perfect Union? Barack Obama and the Politics of Unity,” Thomas Sugrue captures the history-making moment of the inauguration of the first African American president. As Sugrue notes, although Obama’s address lacked the kind of signature phrase that Americans remember from JFK or Lincoln, it did “place his presidency in a long American political and religious tradition.” And, like Lincoln, President Obama faced the challenge of dealing with the issue of race and civil rights, but in the very different context of the twenty-first century.
As always, this issue provides lesson plans for key grade levels. These are designed to meet the call for literacy acquired through historical documents and are built around the five inaugural addresses covered in the historians’ essays. And, our multimedia feature includes readings of several inaugural addresses and videos of modern presidents on inauguration days.
This is our last issue before the summer vacation that teachers—and students—so richly deserve. In the fall, we will return with issues that focus on commemoration of Gettysburg and on military history, biography, and the importance of generals in shaping American history.
Enjoy your summer—and be sure to bring a history book with you to the beach or the mountains!