George Washington confessed his anxiety. Thomas Jefferson felt humble but took the opportunity to declare the United States as having the strongest government on earth. Andrew Jackson, who later pushed the Indians west of the Mississippi River, promised to adhere to a just and liberal policy to the tribes. George Bush thanked his predecessor, Ronald Reagan.
By the time an incoming president makes his inaugural address, his name and perhaps his opinions are already known to the people. Some, such as Andrew Jackson and Dwight D. Eisenhower, explicitly refer to gold standards or communist enemies; others, from Washington to Jimmy Carter, have appealed for faith in our system of government.
The inaugural address articulates a president’s philosophy, mission and plan for the nation’s future. The legacy he ultimately leaves behind, though, may belie these first words spoken in his official executive capacity. As George W. Bush steps up today to take his oath of office, it is a good time from our vantage point of history to look back and see how the first words of his predecessors fared. We’ve excerpted some presidents’ speeches from the Library of Congress (memory.loc.gov); Bartleby.com; “The American President” by Philip B. Kunhardt Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III and Peter W. Kunhardt; and “American Heritage Illustrated History of the Presidents,” edited by Michael Beschloss.
George Washington knew that from his example would be determined the character of a nation. Although the roots of the Constitution evolved from a long line of historical precedents, the concept of a leader as president serving the will of the people on this enormous scale was truly an unparalleled experiment. Washington, and his wife, Martha, for that matter, had looked forward to retirement at their Mount Vernon mansion with its 80,000 acres and a village of slaves, but it seemed inevitable that the war hero would be called once more into service. The first inaugural address, held in New York City on April 30, 1789, underlined his belief that the executive would purely be a servant to the people, and that included being hands-off of Congress.
“Fellow-Citizens of the Senate and of the House of Representatives: Among the vicissitudes incident to life no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order, and received on the 14th day of the present month. Instead of undertaking particular recommendations on this subject, in which I could be guided by no lights derived from official opportunities, I shall again give way to my entire confidence in your discernment and pursuit of the public good. (T)he light in which I contemplated my duty required that I should renounce every pecuniary compensation. From this resolution I have in no instance departed; and being still under the impressions which produced it, I must decline as inapplicable to myself any share in the personal emoluments which may be indispensably included in a permanent provision for the executive department. ”
William Henry Harrison delivered the longest inaugural speech, about 8,445 words. His 1841 term is also notable for being the shortest: It lasted one month before he succumbed to pneumonia. It probably didn’t help that the 68-year-old stood in a snowstorm during his 1 hour, 45-minute speech.
“Called from a retirement which I had supposed was to continue for the residue of my life to fill the chief executive office of this great and free nation, I appear before you, fellow-citizens to present to you a summary of the principles which will govern me in the discharge of the duties which I shall be called upon to perform. I proceed to state in as summary a manner as I can my opinion of the sources of the evils which have been so extensively complained of and the correctives which may be applied. Some of the former are unquestionably to be found in the defects of the Constitution; others, in my judgment, are attributable to a misconstruction of some of its provisions.
The only preacher to succeed to the presidency, James Garfield defied the practice of senatorial courtesy, which had left the practice of federal appointments in states vulnerable to the whim of the senator. In the vacuum following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, it seemed that Garfield would at last reassert the power of the executive branch, until a religious fanatic with a gun brought the former Civil War general down. Alexander Graham Bell was even brought in to use electrical means to find the bullet in the president’s body. Garfield finally died two months later on Sept. 19, 1881. He was the second president to be assassinated in American history. His March 4, 1881, address underscores his reputation as the Republican party’s best speaker and gives insight to a promising, but unfulfilled, destiny.
“Fellow-Citizens: We stand to-day upon an eminence which overlooks a hundred years of national life a century crowded with perils, but crowned with the triumphs of liberty and law. It is now three days more than a hundred years since the adoption of the first written constitution of the United States the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. The jurisdiction of this Constitution now covers an area 50 times greater than that of the original 13 states and a population 20 times greater than that of 1780. The supreme trial of the Constitution came at last under the tremendous pressure of civil war.
The elevation of the Negro race from slavery to the full rights of citizenship is the most important political change we have known since the adoption of the Constitution of 1787. It has liberated the master as well as the slave from a relation which wronged and enfeebled both. It has surrendered to their own guardianship the manhood of more than 5,000,000 people, and has opened to each one of them a career of freedom and usefulness. But those who resisted the change should remember that under our institutions there was no middle ground for the Negro race between slavery and equal citizenship. There can be no permanent disfranchised peasantry in the United States. The free enjoyment of equal suffrage is still in question, and a frank statement of the issue may aid its solution. My countrymen, we do not now differ in our judgment concerning the controversies of past generations, and 50 years hence our children will not be divided in their opinions concerning our controversies. They will surely bless their fathers and their fathers’ God that the Union was preserved, that slavery was overthrown, and that both races were made equal before the law. ”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt has been and will be the only president barring any Constitutional amendments to serve more than two terms in office. Indeed, he was elected to four, but died of a cerebral hemorrhage less than three months into his last term. He presided over the end of the Depression, through a Second World War and oversaw among many things the genesis of a United Nations. His last inaugural address, held at the White House due to his enfeebled health, was short.
“Mr. Chief Justice, Mr. Vice President, my friends, you will understand and, I believe, agree with my wish that the form of this inauguration be simple and its words brief. We Americans of today, together with our allies, are passing through a period of supreme test. It is a test of our courage of our resolve of our wisdom our essential democracy. As I stand here today, having taken the solemn oath of office in the presence of my fellow countrymen in the presence of our God I know that it is America’s purpose that we shall not fail. We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace; that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other nations far away. We have learned that we must live as men, not as ostriches, nor as dogs in the manger. So we pray to Him now for the vision to see our way clearly to see the way that leads to a better life for ourselves and for all our fellow men to the achievement of His will to peace on earth.”
President Bill Clinton is only the 11th president to serve at least two complete terms, an accomplishment that had been imperiled by impeachment. The legacy of the third-youngest man to serve office remains to be seen, but certainly he is distinguished as the last American president of the 20th century and of the second millennium. Clinton recognized this is his second and last inaugural address.
“My fellow citizens The promise of America was born in the 18th century out of the bold conviction that we are all created equal. It was extended and preserved in the 19th century, when our nation spread across the continent, saved the union, and abolished the awful scourge of slavery. Then, in turmoil and triumph, that promise exploded onto the world stage to make this the American Century. As times change, so government must change. We need a new government for a new century a government that is smaller, lives within its means, and does more with less. The divide of race has been America’s constant curse. And each new wave of immigrants gives new targets to old prejudices. We cannot, we will not, succumb to the dark impulses that lurk in the far regions of the soul everywhere. We shall overcome them. Ten years ago, the Internet was the mystical province of physicists; today, it is a commonplace encyclopedia for millions of schoolchildren. Scientists now are decoding the blueprint of human life. Cures for our most feared illnesses seem close at hand.
The world is no longer divided into two hostile camps. Instead, now we are building bonds with nations that once were our adversaries. In this new land, education will be every citizen’s most prized possession. We will stand mighty for peace and freedom, and maintain a strong defense against terror and destruction. Our children will sleep free from the threat of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. Ports and airports, farms and factories will thrive with trade and innovation and ideas. And the world’s greatest democracy will lead a whole world of democracies. From the height of this place and the summit of this century, let us go forth. May God strengthen our hands for the good work ahead and always, always bless our America.”