Joseph Ellis: History of Inaugural Addresses

We have obviously come a long way. A vast crowd of spectators witnessed the first African-American in our history take the oath of office as president of the United States. Barack Obama's reputation for oratorical brilliance, plus the multilayered crisis facing the government he has been chosen to lead, combined to generate a dramatic sense of history-in-the-making that required no special pleading from network pundits or crazed bloggers. (Article continued below...)

It was quite different at the beginning. On April 30, 1789, George Washington, who owned about 300 slaves, took the oath of office before a modest crowd of 200 guests gathered in the Senate chamber of Federal Hall in New York City. He had ordered a suit of superfine broadcloth from a Hartford tailor in order to make an austere sartorial statement—this was an inauguration, not a coronation—but he discarded the broadcloth for a suit of black velvet at the last moment.

Eyewitnesses accounts disagree, but several commentators thought that Washington seemed quite nervous, which surprised them given his reputation for stoic serenity when facing musket fire and artillery rounds during the War of Independence. Another witness thought that he did not really want to be there, an opinion supported by the first lines of Washington's Inaugural Address, which emphasized his reluctance about leaving retirement for a job that he did not want but could not decline.

History was most assuredly being made—the American experiment with republican government was being launched—but the inaugural ceremony itself was a disappointingly dull affair. Washington's speech was delivered in such a low voice that few in the audience could make out his words, and the printed version, while stately, comes across as flat and platitudinous.

This has proved an ominous precedent. For while Washington is justifiably praised for shaping the office of the American presidency, he also set the mold for most subsequent Inaugural Addresses, which have been ceremonial occasions bereft of eloquence or substance, the rough equivalent of rock concerts without music.

Ranking the worst Inaugural Addresses is a much more difficult task than selecting the best, because there are many more candidates, and the very act of reading through them tends to liquefy one's brain cells and thereby cloud one's judgment. That said, the Inaugural Addresses delivered in the 1850s by Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan strike me as clear winners in the race for the bottom tier. All three are models of obfuscation, in which the core issue threatening the nation, slavery, is studiously avoided.

My candidate for the very worst is William Henry Harrison (1841). The Harrison address is bad enough in its own right, the longest Inaugural Address in American history as I count the words, studded with obscure classical allusions that Harrison inserted to offset his reputation as "the hero of Tippecanoe," whose chief talent was killing Indians. But Harrison merits the award for the worst for an additional reason. Because his Inaugural Address lasted so long, and because he refused to wear a coat despite the cold weather, Harrison developed a fatal case of pneumonia and died a month later, making him the shortest-lived president in American history, assassinated by his own long-windedness.

The quest for the best is a somewhat easier task, with an almost unanimous consensus that Lincoln's second inaugural (1865) is the clear winner. Lincoln was a poet-president, and his second Inaugural is an even more concise, lyrical and poignant rendering of the tragedy that was the Civil War than his Gettysburg Address. Lincoln's first inaugural is almost equally impressive, with language that continues to live (e.g., "mystic chords of memory," "better angels of our nature") and cadences that seem to echo both the Old Testament and Shakespeare. When it comes to Inaugural Addresses, there is Lincoln, and there is everyone else.

Most students of the subject place John Kennedy's address (1961) in the top tier. It seems to have been written—by Ted Sorensen, not Kennedy himself—as a collection of quotable quotes, most memorably "Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country." As a call to arms in the Cold War, however, its open-ended commitment to that cause ("we shall pay any price, bear any burden") has never sounded as inspiring since the body bags started coming back from Vietnam. The rhetoric of Kennedy's address is definitely top tier, but the message has not stood the test of time.

My unconventional candidate for the A-list in lieu of Kennedy is John Quincy Adams (1825), who was probably the most literate of all American presidents. His address is Ciceronian in its classical cadences, and his vision of a continental American nation, knitted together by roads, canals and railroads (i.e., infrastructure), granted more power to government than most Americans of the day were prepared to accept. Adams, like his father before him, was hurled from office after one term. But his Inaugural Address is perhaps the most prophetic in the genre.

My two other top choices are more orthodox. The first inaugural (1801) of Thomas Jefferson, our other poet-president, has the same lyrical lilt he brought to his draft of the Declaration of Independence. It was delivered in the wake of one of the dirtiest and bitterest presidential elections in American history, the first election to transfer power to the opposition party. The statement "We are all Federalists, we are all Republicans" is the gold standard for all subsequent efforts to sound a bipartisan note.

Franklin Roosevelt's first inaugural (1933), delivered amid the greatest challenge to the survival of the republic since the Civil War, derives its poignancy and power from the reassuring tone it imposed on the cascading economic chaos of the time. If Lincoln embraced the righteous God of the Old Testament, Roosevelt preferred the Redeemer of the New Testament. The address reads so well today because we know that Roosevelt delivered on the core promises he made. Its trademark line, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," is for the ages.

If there is an inaugural pattern—that is, beyond the larger pattern of stump-speech cant, hollow rhetoric and false eloquence—it is that the most memorable Inaugural Addresses have occurred at the most perilous times. And the very best of them have been crafted by a president (not speechwriters) with an instinctive ear for language and an oratorical sense energized by the dramatic challenge of the historical moment. Both the moment and the man were in place in January 2009.