The Best Inaugural Addresses Ever
Heather Whipps, LiveScience's History Columnist
When he delivers his historic inaugural address on Jan.
20, President-elect and noted public speaker Barack
Obama will be continuing a 220-year-old oratorical
tradition begun by George Washington.
A set of spoken words hasn' t been so hotly anticipated
by so many people since perhaps Obama's victory
speech on election night.
Though not required by the Constitution, George
Washington gave the first inaugural address as the new
president in 1789, and every other incoming commander-
in-chief has kept up the practice. Since then, incoming
leaders have delivered speeches ranging from the prosaic
to the powerful and much in between, reflecting the
challenges of the era.
Obama’s speech-writer is just 27 years old ... a lot of
pressure for someone whose text could either rally a
nation or merely be slipped quietly into the archives of
history. For insurance, he might take a cue from a few of
the better inaugural addresses of the past -- the ones we
remember, that we quote, that we see pop up on
"Jeopardy" from time to time.
We' ve compiled the five inaugural addresses that most
historians consider tops:
Ronald Reagan: 1981 – Let us renew our faith and our
In the first inaugural address given on the West Front of
the Capitol building, Ronald Reagan delivered a
memorable summons to the American people, asking them
for some old-fashioned blood, sweat and tears to combat
the economic hardships that had hit the nation:
"We are not, as some would have us believe, doomed to
an inevitable decline. I do not believe in a fate that will fall
on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will
fall on us if we do nothing. So, with all the creative energy
at our command, let us begin an era of national
renewal. Let us renew our determination, our courage,
and our strength. And let us renew our faith and our hope."
Franklin D. Roosevelt: 1933 – The only thing we have to
fear is fear itself
With the Great Depression entering its worst years, FDR
spoke to the very real concerns of everyday Americans
while imploring the people to get back on their feet:
"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."
Thomas Jefferson: 1801 – We are all Republicans
Thomas Jefferson opened the 19th century with a stirring,
eloquent speech aimed at repairing divisions caused by
his controversial election, which took recounts and
debates in Congress to decide:
"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
Ironically, Jefferson went on to give what is considered
one of the worst inaugural addresses after his re-election
John F. Kennedy: 1961 – Ask not what your country can
do for you
Perhaps the most quotable inaugural line of all time comes
from the swearing-in of JFK. Speaking during the depths
of the Cold War, Kennedy asked his countrymen and
women to join in to defend America against the common
enemies of man:
"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."
Abraham Lincoln: 1865 – Bind up the nation’s wounds
With the Civil War in its final days and the country still
divided, Abraham Lincoln kept his second inaugural
address short but poignant in the hopes of reconciliation:
"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."
Video – See Inaugural Address of the Past
God's Role in Presidential Inaugurations and Beyond
Quiz: American Independence
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