Unlike the state of the union address, which lays out specific policy and legislative objectives before Congress, the inaugural address generally traffics in broad themes and platitudes addressed to a wider public.
In the 224 years since George Washington gave the first inaugural address, they have run the gamut from great (Abraham Lincoln) to inept (James Buchanan, who failed to capture the gravity of the impending civil war) to too long (William Henry Harrison – who spoke for more than an hour and a half in a cold, driving rain and died of pneumonia a month later).
"There are some famous inaugural lines, and there are some terrible inaugural lines," said Richard Vatz, professor of rhetoric at Towson University in Maryland. "George Bush (Sr.) talked about 'a new breeze.' Have you heard anybody refer to a new breeze in all the years since Bush said 'a new breeze [is blowing]'? [Jimmy] Carter was probably the emptiest of all with his 'new spirit,' and Nixon talked about lowering our voices, and then he raised our voices."
Most not memorable
The few inaugural speeches that have instilled themselves in the collective memory have come at moments of crisis or transformation, says Stephen H. Browne, a professor of rhetorical studies at Pennsylvania State University and author of a book on Thomas Jefferson's first inaugural address.
"There's no doubt that the greatest inaugural addresses have been context-driven," he said. "In some sense, history reaches out and demands that something important be said well. And that's why so many of them are just sort of OK. They do their job, but they're not memorable, because the moment wasn't memorable."
Though they're often peppered with cliches and sweeping statements that promise things that will never be delivered, inaugural addresses can still offer valuable insight.
"They're quite illustrative of both the person and the politics," Browne said. "They're good mirrors of the cultural moments, for sure."
Here are six inaugural addresses that captured their time and inspired the nation (click on the name to jump to the relevant section).
- George Washington
- Thomas Jefferson
- Abraham Lincoln
- Franklin D. Roosevelt
- John F. Kennedy
- Ronald Reagan
George Washington — April 30, 1789
Unlike the state of the union, the inaugural address is not mandated by the constitution or Congress. It's a practice started by George Washington at the nation's first inauguration on April 30, 1789. Given that he hated public speaking, the decision to start such a tradition was a testament to his sense of duty to the country and the office.
While inaugural addresses have generally been given outdoors before an audience of invited guests and the general public, Washington's was delivered indoors before Congress, which at the time sat in Federal Hall in the then-capital, New York City.
After taking his oath of office out on the building's balcony before a crowd of ordinary citizens, Washington stepped inside and gave a speech whose "self-effacing tone was the mark of the 18th-century gentleman," wrote Library of Congress historian Julie Miller in an article on the speech.
Washington spoke of the "indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity."
He marveled at the "great assemblage of communities and interests" embodied in the elected representatives before him and made no bones about the gravity of the task ahead for those elected to lead the newly independent nation.
"The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people," he said.
By his next inauguration four years later, Washington had lost his taste for such lofty statements and delivered an inaugural address that was only four sentences long and amounted to a promise to uphold his duties as president or suffer the "upbraidings" of the people.
Thomas Jefferson — March 4, 1801
Jefferson's first inaugural address was given on the heels of an election that was the new republic's first true contest between rival political parties: the Federalists and Jefferson's Republican Party.
In the speech, Jefferson "brilliantly manages the transfer of government from one administration to another," Browne said, and lays out the basic principles of republicanism on which the new nation was founded.
Jefferson speaks of "a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned."
He preaches tolerance and harmony not just within America but with the rest of the world.
"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," he says.
And later: "Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none."
The speech was precedent-setting and established a style that would be emulated in future inaugural addresses, striking the right balance between the excessively ornate language typical of European statesmen and the more populist and partisan tone of campaign speeches, said Browne.
"The prose itself was in a sense a declaration of what a republican president ought to sound like," Browne said "The prose is clean and simple and tight — presumably made to be consistent with the republican virtues of democratic simplicity."
Jefferson's was also the first inaugural address to be met with broad public acclaim, said Browne. It received widespread newspaper coverage and was praised for its eloquence and the gravity and simplicity of the performance — Jefferson shunned any fancy dress or regalia and did not wear the powdered wig customary for the time.
Abraham Lincoln — March 4, 1865
Both of Lincoln's inaugural addresses were historic, coming as they did on the eve of and at the tail end of the civil war, respectively. But only the second is carved in stone at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass called it a "sacred effort" for the emphasis it put on slavery as a shared national stain, said Michelle Krowl, a Civil War historian with the Library of Congress, in an email interview.
With Lincoln coming off re-election and triumphs against Confederate troops on the battlefield, many were expecting him to give a victory speech, but he surprised both sides in the conflict by giving a short, reflective speech about the causes and responsibilities of the war.
"It is a speech anticipating the coming day when the work of reconstruction of the union would begin, and that 'with malice toward none; with charity for all' Americans would begin to 'bind up the nation's wounds'," Krowl said, citing two of the most famous lines from the address.
More than Lincoln's other speeches, his second inaugural address is "infused with religious language and musings about divine will," Krowl said. In it, Lincoln calls slavery an offense against God and tells the nation that the war was the price both sides had to pay for being complicit in the sin of slavery.
God "gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came," Lincoln says.
Despite being in a position of great strength, Lincoln "held out the olive branch to the defeated Confederacy at a time when very many people in the North were vowing to exact vengeance," said H.W. Brands, a professor of history and government at the University of Texas at Austin and author of numerous books on American history and presidents.
The address ends with a call for "a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations," an echo of the sentiment expressed in Lincoln's first inaugural address, which ends with an appeal to "the better angels of our nature."
But Lincoln himself would not live to see the lasting peace of which he spoke. He was assassinated on April 14, 1865, a few days after Confederate Army Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Army Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and before the official end of the war.
Franklin D. Roosevelt — March 4, 1933
Roosevelt's first two inaugural addresses (he made four in total) were delivered while the United States was in the grips of the Great Depression, and both were pivotal.
When he gave his first inaugural address, unemployment was almost 25 per cent, and while the speech acknowledges the "dark realities of the moment," it also assures the nation that it can overcome these difficulties and establishes the comforting voice that made Roosevelt such a revered, trusted father figure to so many Americans.
"He calms the nation with the famous phrase 'the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,'" said Barbara A. Perry, a presidential scholar and senior fellow at the University of Virginia's Miller Center in Charlottesville, Va.
Roosevelt's famous line was astute, said Browne, because it recognized the Depression as "a social-psychological state as much as an economic one."
"What he was trying to do is beat back the waves of panic that had been settling in for some years as the Depression itself deepened," Browne said.
In upbraiding the stock market speculators who helped cause the crash of 1929, Roosevelt sounded not unlike those admonishing Wall Street today.
"Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men," Roosevelt said.
"Faced by failure of credit, they have proposed only the lending of more money. ... They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish."
The vision Roosevelt's address offered was an embrace of "social values more noble than mere monetary profit" and the enactment of a series of measures to rein in banks and increase the government's role in job creation, agriculture, industry, housing and transportation.
"Roosevelt's view was capitalism is on the ropes and in order to save capitalism, we have to inject more government into the system," Perry said.
Roosevelt vowed to do everything in his power to enforce the relief measures, which would come to be known as the New Deal, including, if necessary, seeking "executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were, in fact, invaded by a foreign foe."
"These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men," he told the nation.
John F. Kennedy — Jan. 20, 1961
Although not the first inaugural address of the TV age, Kennedy's speech was the first to truly capitalize on the visual impact of the moment. He delivered it on a cold January day, but insisted on not wearing an overcoat.
"He wanted to emphasize the distinction between the vigour of his young generation and new administration and the age and approaching senility of Dwight Eisenhower and the people that were moving out," said Brands.
"His inaugural address is all about 'the torch has been passed to a new generation,' and people looked up on the platform, and they saw Eisenhower, who definitely did look old, and he was bundled up and huddled against the cold where Kennedy didn't even have an overcoat on."
Kennedy's inaugural address was given at the height of the Cold War and is full of strong statements aimed at emboldening Americans in their fight against Communism, the most famous of which is "ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country."
"That is the most fascinating line from an inaugural address, because John F. Kennedy is remembered by everybody as the great liberal Democratic president but, in fact, Kennedy was a conservative liberal president, and the sentiment in [that line] is, in fact, a conservative sentiment," said Vatz.
Kennedy's famous line was directed at a generation of Americans who, Kennedy said, had been "granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger."
The speech, written together with Kennedy's trusted speechwriter and alter ego Ted Sorensen, was a shot across the bow of the Communist world but was also meant to inspire America's allies, said Perry.
"Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty," Kennedy said.
He called on Americans not be weak but not to abandon the prospect of peace either. "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate," he said.
Despite its at times militaristic bluster, the speech also stressed empathy with those "struggling to break the bonds of mass misery" and ultimately appealed for peace between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
"If a beachhead of co-operation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved," Kennedy said.
Ronald Reagan — Jan. 20, 1981
Even before he stepped up to the podium to deliver his first inaugural address, Reagan was primed to give a good speech. He was an excellent public speaker, having honed his skills as an actor in Hollywood, a spokesman for General Electric and governor of California. He had a great and trusted speech writer in Peggy Noonan, and he knew how to play to the camera.
Reagan's speech is historic for the way it boldly announced the conservative agenda and put a nation that was in the depths of an "economic affliction of great proportions" on notice that a "new beginning" was coming.
"It announces and celebrates the conservative intention to rein in big government, to be more frugal economically, to pare back the reach of the federal bureaucracy," Browne said. "He just nailed it. Whether you're a supporter or a critic, you'd have to acknowledge that."
In the speech, Reagan vows to "reverse the growth of government" and "curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment" and utters the famous line that, Browne says, went on to settle into the "DNA of American neoconservative politics": "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."
He assures the American people that it is not his intention to do away with government but rather "to make it work — work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back."
He promises to free all Americans from "the terror of runaway living costs" (i.e., record-high inflation of almost 14 per cent) and to remove the "roadblocks that have slowed our economy and reduced productivity."
"It is time for us to realize that we are too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams," he tells Americans.
Much of the staying power of the most memorable inaugural addresses is owing to the charisma of the presidents delivering them, and no less is true of Reagan's first inaugural address.
"He had stage presence, and he knew how to address the American people in such a way that they would remember him and they would be drawn to him," said Perry. "All of these men — Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy, Roosevelt, Reagan — all had charisma, which is that quality of the heart that draws people to them. They almost speak heart to heart rather than head to head."