What Makes For A Memorable Inaugural Address?

What makes a memorable inaugural address?  Consider the following: “We have been, and propose to be, more and more American. We believe that we can best serve our own country and most successfully discharge our obligations to humanity by continuing to be openly and candidly, intensely and scrupulously, American. If we have any heritage, it has been that. If we have any destiny, we have found it in that direction.”

Or: “Let us now join reason to faith and action to experience, to transform our unity of interest into a unity of purpose. For the hour and the day and the time are here to achieve progress without strife, to achieve change without hatred; not without difference of opinion but without the deep and abiding divisions which scar the union for generations.”

Now this: “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.”

The first excerpt is from Calvin Coolidge’s 1925 inaugural address, the second from Lyndon Johnson’s in 1965, and the third, of course, is Lincoln’s second inaugural given in 1865, shortly before his assassination. It is probably the most famous presidential inaugural of all.  Almost all of us recognized Lincoln’s words, but I doubt very few of you recognized the other two passages. Why – what makes Lincoln’s speech so memorable?

Anyone reading through the 55 presidential inaugural addresses to date (and I’ve read them all!) will find that they follow a common pattern: an opening paean to the democratic ritual of a transition in power, often cloaked in an appeal to unity and to transcending partisanship power (“We are all Democrats. We are all Federalists”).  Sometimes this includes a statement of the theme to come – an introduction to the rest of the speech. This is then followed by a listing of the problems facing the country, and the world, and the difficulties in solving those problems. Part three then typically reaffirms American’s commitment and ability to solving those problems, if partisanship is put aside (“If we succeed it will not be because of what we have, but it will be because of what we are; not because of what we own, but rather because of what we believe” – LBJ 1965.)  Often there is reference to American institutions.  Finally, the president concludes with an appeal to a higher power – the Almighty, or God.

Since presidents rarely stray from this formula, what makes some addresses more noteworthy than others?  History suggests that stirring words alone are not enough to make an inaugural address memorable.  With the advent of nationally broadcast addresses, and the use of speechwriters, rhetorical flourishes are now the norm.  But some of the most powerful speeches are remembered for very simple declarative statements. Consider FDR’s: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself…” Or Reagan in 1981: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”  The power of these statements lies less in their literary construct than in their ability to isolate the transcendent issue of the day.

A memorable address, then, depends on the speaker’s ability to capture the essence of the moment in a way that resonates with most Americans.  There are two parts to this equation. First, extraordinary speeches require extraordinary times.  Consider the most frequently cited inaugural addresses: all occurred at a time of great national peril, beginning with Jefferson’s 1801 address, the first to take place after a change of political power in our nation. Lincoln’s second inaugural occurred in the middle of civil war. Roosevelt’s took place at a time of unprecedented economic depression; Kennedy’s clarion call to “bear any burden, pay any price” rang out during the heart of the Cold War, and Reagan’s when the nation was ready to reject the legacy of the New Deal and  embrace a new governing philosophy.

So the times bring forth great speeches. But a second required ingredient is the ability of the president (beginning with the speechwriters who, since at least FDR’s presidency, write the initial drafts) to capture the essence of the problem facing the nation, and to link that to a solution that embodies transcendent American values.

Are those ingredients in place today?  Certainly, we live in perilous times and all eyes are focused on the incoming administration to a degree not seen since Reagan took office in 1981. Expectations, then, are high.  But can Obama deliver?  Can he capture the essence of the problem – and a distinctly American solution – in a lasting phrase or declaration?

We’ll know in a few minutes.

Send me your reactions after the speech.


  1. So far, this is squarely in the tradition of previous addresses: an appeal to transcend partisanship, a listing of prblems, an emphasis on what unites us, and a promise to overcome those differences to solve problems. He’s particularly good at meshing references to continuity with promises of change.

  2. I thought that it was OK but not what I had hoped.

    I have never seen him as the great orator that he is credited with being.

    this was a workmanlike speech, really better suited to a State of the Union I would say.

    Nothing stirring in it- no ” nothing to fear but fear itself’ Or ” the torch has been passed to a new generation…”

  3. In many respects this hewed closely to the formula of previous addresses, but what made it distinctive, I think, was the quiet but no less meaningful references to the historic occasion of electing an African-American as president. If there was a transcendent moment, I think it was in these references: “For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.” And later: For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”

    I think that will be the lasting impact of this speech – the historic symbolism of a black president. It was less memorable in terms of addressing the economic crisis, or in laying out a philosophy of government. Here he hewed closely to the middle, not really saying much that could be viewed as a statement of governing philosophy, or direction.

  4. This, I think, will be the takeaway phrase: “This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed – why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”

  5. This did stick largely to the formula, but I think the fact that we are a nation of immigrants (or descendants of immigrants) was spun differently, and perhaps uniquely.

    Bush had essentially said in his inaugurals, to paraphrase, “What makes us American is our embrace of the idea (or ideals) of America”.

    Obama took a different tack, saying, essentially, that it’s not our embrace of ideals that makes us American, but our struggles. It isn’t our unity in believing in an idea, but the differences (and different people) striving to realize those ideas, that unites us. Nuanced change, yes, but I think it is significant. The journey, our actions, is more important than the ideas that bring us together.

    There was also a Reagan-esque quality, in his call to “remake” America, and a Kennedy-esque call for service.

    Finally, in the reference to foreign nations, I think Obama was very self-aware, that this moment is being watched worldwide. AND, he is slowly remaking U.S. public opinion to build support for foreign aid because it prevents future danger. It is notable that this was included in what was ostensibly an address to the people of the United States.

  6. In terms of formula, yes you could trace those common threads, I can say that the energy present and the inspiring nature of being there and listening to it, while watching. So many others react was simply awesome.

  7. Not only is the speech itself memorable, but the act of the inauguration is memorable. I think 1.2 million persons attending is the record for an inauguration (LBJ)–that will be shattered today. I’m not sure how many were in attendance but there were estimates as high as 4 million and as low as 2 million.

    Something else has to be considered: it is possible that history and retrospect help shape the interpretation of an impactful, meaningful inauguration. Perhaps Buchanan’s inauguration would have been more memorable if he had preempted the Civil War; maybe Hoover’s inauguration would have been praised more if he had begun policies adopted by FDR. If Obama ends up being credited for resolving America’s credit crisis, repairing America’s image abroad, and introducing a more amenable political process, I think it’s possible that history will judge his speech and inauguration as more historic simply because it was he who stepped up in a perilous time.

  8. What makes an inauguration speech memorable? A memorable president speaking it.

    I notice that the presidents you quoted have their own mythology independent of their inaugurals. I’d suggest that each inaugural speech has quotable lines, and then later people decide that the presidents are quote-worthy and go do it.

    I was surprised by the kernel of doctrine for dictators – we’ll extend our hand if you unclench your fist. Not something I got a whiff of in the campaign.

  9. I thought despite the lack of soaring rhetoric, Obama’s inauguration speech accomplished a few important things. First, it helped erase some of the mystery that surrounds Obama which lofty words would have simply perpetuated. He established that the goals he set during the campaign were still a major part of his agenda (health care, infrastructure, education, etc.), appealing to his base, but he also conceded that underlying this was a battered economy that must be his first priority, which is important to those who are not gung-ho Obama supporters. His attention to foreign policy was also interesting to note, seeing has he hasn’t focused on it much during the transition. By getting down to specifics instead of trending toward the beautiful abstractions expected of him, he managed to walk the line between ideals and reality that appealed to the majority of the population.

    Second, he managed to convey his message of change while only uttering the word once. Although Obama won the election because of his promise of change, those who are not the most ardent Obama supporters are most likely fatigued by his use of the word. He “proclaim[ed] an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics” and declared that “we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America,” a clear message of change and a break from the Bush administration, done in a skillful and sly manner that did not fall into cliché.

    Perhaps the speech’s most important part, and the part that will be most memorable, is its encouragement of an active public and its recognition of the momentous occasion. Although the word “change” was only said once, “our” was said 67 times and “we” was often used to include the nation into his remarks. In that way, the speech was reminiscent of JFK’s call to service in his inauguration speech. His incorporation of the past was also effective, especially when he referenced ” what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.” It showed that despite people’s fears about what is going on now, we have faced worse in the past and we can “brave once more the icy currents and endure what storms may come.”

    I thought that Obama’s speech was eloquent and that it accomplished what it needed to accomplish, and for those who say that it wasn’t as great as they expected it to be, I think it was impossible for Obama to exceed the expectations set for him concerning his ability to make a awe-inspiring inauguration speech.

  10. @ UnderstatementJones

    “I was surprised by the kernel of doctrine for dictators – we’ll extend our hand if you unclench your fist. Not something I got a whiff of in the campaign.”

    Really? His foreign policy approach was all about diplomacy, creating lines of communication, and creating mutually-beneficial agreements to build a safer world. McCain relentlessly battered him for being soft on enemies. This was the clearest articulation of the approach he’d been talking about during the campaign.

  11. Dan Stevens was at the inauguration and sent me the following post:

    Professor Dickinson,

    I just got done reading the speech for the first time after hearing it live on the mall. And I think I come away with two different reactions.

    I’ve spent the last few days reading a few of the treasures of inaugural addresses in American history so as to adequately place this one – Lincoln’s first, FDR’s first, JFK’s, etc. And so standing on the mall, I kept listening for an “ask not” “fear itself” line, that didn’t come.

    And to be fair, I was already in a sour mood. I broke through the crowds at 11:27, in time to sprint my way to the mall just in time to see Obama introduced. I mention this, because most of the fall out about the inauguration in Washington DC has to do with the thousands that didn’t get to see the speech . I would say 75% of the people I know living in DC were stuck at a gate at the time of the speech. And so instead of dwelling on the power of the address, most analysis here has been on the inaiblity of thousands of ticket-holders to actually attend the event. This story has been much underplayed by the press – so far.

    But as far as the speech is concerned, I agree with a lot of the blogosphere that the speech has many paragraphs that might one day be memorable. These include the “unclench the fist” and “pick ourselves up” sections among others. And I think this distinction is what separates this speech from FDR and JFK. Both of the famous lines from those inaugural addresses drew immediate acclaim. While listening to Obama’s speech, I heard a few phrases and lifts of momentum that inspired me, but nothing like what I’ve read the past few days. Perhaps because we’ve heard the cliche lines so many times, we have no idea what they would have sounded like in their originality. But FDR’s nothing to fear but fear itself was already being used in popular parlance and he elevated it to the place it now holds. Similarly, Obama’s winter of hardships was a nice allusion to Shakespeare and might one day be memorized by grade school children, but nothing from the speech immediately moved me like what moved those cheering thousands in 1933.

    My immediate take away from the live event, though, was disappointment. I was disappointed by the smaller crowd than I had expected. I was disappointed by the lack of immediately memorable sentences from the speech, and I was disappointed by the seeming crowd wide sentiment that the speech was good, but not King or Kennedy. The crowd just didn’t have the energy I’ve felt at other Obama events or even Dean and Edwards events in 04. I also watched Obama at the DNC in 04 and 08. Both of these speeches drew more from the crowd than anything yesterday.

    After reading the speech, I think was more pleased than I had been when listening to it live. I think it puts the country in proper perspective and draws on the right chords. I also think it sets itself up to be memorable in the future. Lincoln’s, Roosevelt’s, and Kennedy’s speeches are all remembered because of their prescience. Those speeches wouldn’t be remembered without the fortitude of subsequent events. What made those speeches great wasn’t their summation of the past but their predictions for the future.

    Similarly, if Obama brings us through this recession, war, and political divide successfully, this speech might reach greatness. But if Obama fails like Buchanan or Hoover, his speech will similarly be remembered. We’ll have to wait and see.

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