When Barack Obama was publicly sworn in yesterday, it was only the seventeenth time in our history that a president was able to offer a second inaugural address. The happenstance of which Presidents fall into this category may be trivial, but together these seventeen speeches offer a portrait of our evolving Nation, charting the path of various ideologies, historical forces, and rhetorical tropes.
Several themes recur throughout the centuries, almost as if the Presidents were in conversation with each other.
- War: Four of the seventeen focus solely on a war (James Madison and the War of 1812, Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, Woodrow Wilson and the First World War, and Dwight Eisenhower and the Cold War), but almost all of them discuss war and the course of international relations in some way.
- Economic Depression: Monroe’s prescriptions for a weak economy following the War of 1812 sound downright Keynesian. Cleveland, on the other hand, virtually surrenders to the Panic of 1893 that had begun just days before his address and would permanently realign the parties. When Roosevelt decries “centuries of fatalistic suffering,” you almost expect him to call out Cleveland by name.
- The Scope of Government: Perhaps the central element of Jefferson’s address are his efforts to reduce the size, cost, and debt of the Federal government. This theme, sometimes paired with a demand for more efficient, less corrupt government, is seen evolving in his successors, especially Cleveland, Nixon, and Reagan.
- Union: Almost every address hits the theme of unity, but Jackson devoted his entire speech to the necessity of a unified nation and shared sacrifice. His address was in response to the Nullification Crisis, and is the tragically fitting precursor to Lincoln’s, the next address of the seventeen. The theme of shared fate continues to evolve through Wilson, Roosevelt, Clinton, and Obama.
- Expanding Role in Foreign Affairs: Jefferson’s foreign policy focuses on neutrality and the acquisition of new territory. Monroe updates both objectives, and also discusses an expanding navy. Grant begins sounding the trumpet of American exceptionalism, which echoes in all of the rest. Grant also points to the integration of all nations, a theme embraced by Wilson. McKinley’s speech is full of foreign excursions in Latin America and the Philippines, enshrining an image of muscular American behavior embraced by Eisenhower, Reagan and Bush.
- Native Americans: Jefferson devotes a substantial portion of his speech commiserating with the fate of the “aboriginal inhabitants,” concluding that their best option is to integrate into the spreading American society. Monroe pivots to the idea of Indian reservations before Grant returns to Jefferson’s notion of civilizing.
- Slavery: Lincoln is the first to tackle slavery, though the sadly limited progress on Civil Rights is evident as soon as Grant. The story of civil rights begins to play an ever more important role in the addresses of Clinton and Obama.
- Partisanship: Many of the speeches exalt unity over faction, but few get as specific in their partisanship as Jefferson and Grant.
- Veneration of the Founders: This is a common theme, and it begins as early as Monroe and Jackson. It becomes especially pronounced, though, in the addresses of Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Obama.
- Technological Change: Grant is the first to invoke technological change, and display an awareness of how many changes the country has undergone. Wilson, Eisenhower, and Clinton also ascribe it a prominent role in the changing American character.
And now, on to the speeches. I’ve linked to a transcript of every speech, quoted what I found to be the most interesting parts, and included video where possible.
1. George Washington’s Second Inaugural Address (1793)
- Issues: None. The whole thing is only four sentences long.
- “This oath I am now about to take, and in your presence: That if it shall be found during my administration of the Government I have in any instance violated willingly or knowingly the injunctions thereof, I may (besides incurring constitutional punishment) be subject to the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony.”
2. Thomas Jefferson’s Second Inaugural Address (1805)
- Issues: Reductions in taxes and spending, justification for the Louisiana Purchase, respect for the free exercise of religion, attempts to civilize the “aboriginal inhabitants,” and not using the power of the law to discipline the abuses of the press, though they deserve public censure.
- “During this course of administration, and in order to disturb it, the artillery of the press has been leveled against us, charged with whatsoever its licentiousness could devise or dare. These abuses of an institution so important to freedom and science are deeply to be regretted, inasmuch as they tend to lessen its usefulness and to sap its safety. They might, indeed, have been corrected by the wholesome punishments reserved to and provided by the laws of the several States against falsehood and defamation, but public duties more urgent press on the time of public servants, and the offenders have therefore been left to find their punishment in the public indignation.”
3. James Madison’s Second Inaugural Address (1813)
- Issue: The necessity, justice, and scrupulous conduct of the ongoing War of 1812, except on the part of the British.
- “When the public voice called for war, all knew, and still know, that without them it could not be carried on through the period which it might last, and the patriotism, the good sense, and the manly spirit of our fellow-citizens are pledges for the cheerfulness with which they will bear each his share of the common burden. To render the war short and its success sure, animated and systematic exertions alone are necessary, and the success of our arms now may long preserve our country from the necessity of another resort to them.”
4. James Monroe’s Second Inaugural Address (1821)
- Issues: The construction of fortifications and expansion of the Navy after the conclusion of the War of 1812, neutrality in the struggles between Spain and her South American colonies, the importance of acquiring Florida, the continuation of commercial treaties with France and Britain and of naval protection along the Barbary Coast and in the Pacific, the decision to cut taxes and increase borrowing in the face of a depression, and a paternalistic proposal to establish Indian reservations.
- In regards to the taxes temporarily levied to fund the War of 1812, “Our great resources […] are more especially to be found in the virtue, patriotism, and intelligence of our fellow-citizens, and in the devotion with which they would yield up by any just measure of taxation all their property in support of the rights and honor of their country.”
- Monroe explains his fiscal policy, which sounds downright Keynesian: “Under the present depression of prices, affecting all the productions of the country and every branch of industry […] the revenue has considerably diminished, the effect of which has been to compel Congress either to abandon [the spending initiatives previously discussed] or to resort to loans or internal taxes to supply the deficiency. On the presumption that this depression and the deficiency in the revenue arising from it would be temporary, loans were authorized for the demands of the last and present year. Anxious to relieve my fellow-citizens in 1817 from every burthen which could be dispensed with and the state of the Treasury permitting it, I recommended the repeal of the internal taxes, knowing that such relief was then peculiarly necessary in consequence of the great exertions made in the late war. I made that recommendation under a pledge that should the public exigencies require a recurrence to them at any time while I remained in this trust, I would with equal promptitude perform the duty which would then be alike incumbent on me[…] I am satisfied that under certain circumstances loans may be resorted to with great advantage. I am equally well satisfied, as a general rule, that the demands of the current year, especially in time of peace, should be provided for by the revenue of that year.”
- “We have treated [the Indian tribes] as independent nations, without their having any substantial pretensions to that rank. The distinction has flattered their pride, retarded their improvement, and in many instances paved the way to their destruction.”
- “Perfection in our organization could not have been expected in the outset either in the National or State Governments or in tracing the line between their respective powers. But no serious conflict has arisen, nor any contest but such as are managed by argument and by a fair appeal to the good sense of the people, and many of the defects which experience had clearly demonstrated in both Governments have been remedied. By steadily pursuing this course in this spirit there is every reason to believe that our system will soon attain the highest degree of perfection of which human institutions are capable[…]”
5. Andrew Jackson’s Second Inaugural Address (1833)
- Issue: The important balance between states’ rights and their union in the issue of the Nullification Crisis.
- “Without union our independence and liberty would never have been achieved; without union they never can be maintained. Divided into twenty-four, or even a smaller number, of separate communities, we shall see our internal trade burdened with numberless restraints and exactions; communication between distant points and sections obstructed or cut off; our sons made soldiers to deluge with blood the fields they now till in peace; the mass of our people borne down and impoverished by taxes to support armies and navies, and military leaders at the head of their victorious legions becoming our lawgivers and judges. The loss of liberty, of all good government, of peace, plenty, and happiness, must inevitably follow a dissolution of the Union.”
- “Constantly bearing in mind that in entering into society ‘individuals must give up a share of liberty to preserve the rest,’ it will be my desire so to discharge my duties as to foster with our brethren in all parts of the country a spirit of liberal concession and compromise, and, by reconciling our fellow-citizens to those partial sacrifices which they must unavoidably make for the preservation of a greater good, to recommend our invaluable Government and Union to the confidence and affections of the American people.”
6. Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (1865)
- Issue: the moral justification for the Civil War.
- “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered—that of neither has been answered fully.”
- “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.”
7. Ulysses S Grant’s Second Inaugural Address (1873)
- Issues: Reentry of the Southern states, American Exceptionalism, demilitarization, the rights of freed slaves, rejection of the petition from Santo Domingo to become a territory, restoration of the gold standard, and civilizing the Indians.
- “Under our Republic we support an army less than that of any European power of any standing and a navy less than that of either of at least five of them.”
- “Now that the telegraph is made available for communicating thought, together with rapid transit by steam, all parts of a continent are made contiguous for all purposes of government, and communication between the extreme limits of the country made easier than it was throughout the old thirteen States at the beginning of our national existence.”
- “The effects of the late civil strife have been to free the slave and make him a citizen. Yet he is not possessed of the civil rights which citizenship should carry with it. This is wrong, and should be corrected.” But, “Social equality is not a subject to be legislated upon, nor shall I ask that anything be done to advance the social status of the colored man, except to give him a fair chance to develop what there is good in him, give him access to the schools, and when he travels let him feel assured that his conduct will regulate the treatment and fare he will receive.”
- “I believe that our Great Maker is preparing the world, in His own good time, to become one nation, speaking one language, and when armies and navies will be no longer required.”
- “[T]hroughout the war, and from my candidacy for my present office in 1868 to the close of the last Presidential campaign, I have been the subject of abuse and slander scarcely ever equaled in political history, which to-day I feel that I can afford to disregard in view of your verdict, which I gratefully accept as my vindication.”
8. Grover Cleveland’s Second Inaugural Address (1893)
- Issues: managing expectations ten days in to the Panic of 1893, and combatting corruption.
- “The strong man who in the confidence of sturdy health courts the sternest activities of life and rejoices in the hardihood of constant labor may still have lurking near his vitals the unheeded disease that dooms him to sudden collapse.”
- “In dealing with our present embarrassing situation as related to this subject we will be wise if we temper our confidence and faith in our national strength and resources with the frank concession that even these will not permit us to defy with impunity the inexorable laws of finance and trade.”
- “Under our scheme of government the waste of public money is a crime against the citizen, and the contempt of our people for economy and frugality in their personal affairs deplorably saps the strength and sturdiness of our national character.”
- “I shall to the best of my ability and within my sphere of duty preserve the Constitution by loyally protecting every grant of Federal power it contains, by defending all its restraints when attacked by impatience and restlessness, and by enforcing its limitations and reservations in favor of the States and the people.”
9. William McKinley’s Second Inaugural Address (1901)
- Issues: Triumph over the depression, liberalizing trade, efficiency in government, conclusion of the Spanish-American War, the reconstruction of Cuba, and the establishment of a government for the Philippines.
- “We are reunited. Sectionalism has disappeared. Division on public questions can no longer be traced by the war maps of 1861. These old differences less and less disturb the judgment.”
- “The American people, intrenched in freedom at home, take their love for it with them wherever they go, and they reject as mistaken and unworthy the doctrine that we lose our own liberties by securing the enduring foundations of liberty to others[…]
- “They are obstructionists who despair, and who would destroy confidence in the ability of our people to solve wisely and for civilization the mighty problems resting upon them[…] The path of progress is seldom smooth. New things are often found hard to do. Our fathers found them so. We find them so. They are inconvenient. They cost us something. But are we not made better for the effort and sacrifice, and are not those we serve lifted up and blessed?”
- “Force will not be needed or used when those who make war against us shall make it no more. May it end without further bloodshed, and there be ushered in the reign of peace to be made permanent by a government of liberty under law!”
10. Woodrow Wilson’s Second Inaugural Address (1917)
- Issue: Preparation for World War I.
- “Perhaps no equal period in our history has been so fruitful of important reforms in our economic and industrial life or so full of significant changes in the spirit and purpose of our political action. We have sought very thoughtfully to set our house in order, correct the grosser errors and abuses of our industrial life, liberate and quicken the processes of our national genius and energy, and lift our politics to a broader view of the people’s essential interests.”
- “We are a composite and cosmopolitan people. We are of the blood of all the nations that are at war. The currents of our thoughts as well as the currents of our trade run quick at all seasons back and forth between us and them. The war inevitably set its mark from the first alike upon our minds, our industries, our commerce, our politics and our social action. To be indifferent to it, or independent of it, was out of the question.”
- “The tragic events of the thirty months of vital turmoil through which we have just passed have made us citizens of the world. There can be no turning back. Our own fortunes as a nation are involved whether we would have it so or not.”
- “We are being forged into a new unity amidst the fires that now blaze throughout the world. In their ardent heat we shall, in God’s Providence, let us hope, be purged of faction and division, purified of the errant humors of party and of private interest, and shall stand forth in the days to come with a new dignity of national pride and spirit. Let each man see to it that the dedication is in his own heart, the high purpose of the nation in his own mind, ruler of his own will and desire.”
11. Franklin Roosevelt’s Second Inaugural Address (1937)
- Issue: The continued response to the Great Depression.
- “We of the Republic sensed the truth that democratic government has innate capacity to protect its people against disasters once considered inevitable, to solve problems once considered unsolvable. We would not admit that we could not find a way to master economic epidemics just as, after centuries of fatalistic suffering, we had found a way to master epidemics of disease. We refused to leave the problems of our common welfare to be solved by the winds of chance and the hurricanes of disaster.”
- “We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics.”
- “I see a great nation, upon a great continent, blessed with a great wealth of natural resources. Its hundred and thirty million people are at peace among themselves; they are making their country a good neighbor among the nations. I see a United States which can demonstrate that, under democratic methods of government, national wealth can be translated into a spreading volume of human comforts hitherto unknown, and the lowest standard of living can be raised far above the level of mere subsistence. But here is the challenge to our democracy: In this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens—a substantial part of its whole population—who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life[…] I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.”
- “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
- “In our personal ambitions we are individualists. But in our seeking for economic and political progress as a nation, we all go up, or else we all go down, as one people.”
12. Dwight Eisenhower’s Second Inaugural Address (1957)
- Issues: The threat of communism, nuclear war.
- “In our nation, work and wealth abound. Our population grows. Commerce crowds our rivers and rails, our skies, harbors, and highways. Our soil is fertile, our agriculture productive. The air rings with the song of our industry—rolling mills and blast furnaces, dynamos, dams, and assembly lines—the chorus of America the bountiful.”
- “The divisive force is International Communism and the power that it controls. The designs of that power, dark in purpose, are clear in practice. It strives to seal forever the fate of those it has enslaved. It strives to break the ties that unite the free. And it strives to capture—to exploit for its own greater power—all forces of change in the world, especially the needs of the hungry and the hopes of the oppressed.”
- “We seek peace, knowing that peace is the climate of freedom. And now, as in no other age, we seek it because we have been warned, by the power of modern weapons, that peace may be the only climate possible for human life itself.”
- “We cherish our friendship with all nations that are or would be free. We respect, no less, their independence. And when, in time of want or peril, they ask our help, they may honorably receive it; for we no more seek to buy their sovereignty than we would sell our own. Sovereignty is never bartered among freemen.”
13. Richard Nixon’s Second Inaugural Address (1973)
- Issues: The conclusion of the Vietnam War, the importance of personal responsibility in place of government dependence.
- “Unless we in America work to preserve the peace, there will be no peace. Unless we in America work to preserve freedom, there will be no freedom.”
- “The time has passed when America will make every other nation’s conflict our own, or make every other nation’s future our responsibility, or presume to tell the people of other nations how to manage their own affairs.”
- “That is why today I offer no promise of a purely governmental solution for every problem. We have lived too long with that false promise. In trusting too much in government, we have asked of it more than it can deliver. This leads only to inflated expectations, to reduced individual effort, and to a disappointment and frustration that erode confidence both in what government can do and in what people can do.”
- “Let us remember that America was built not by government, but by people—not by welfare, but by work—not by shirking responsibility, but by seeking responsibility.”
- “In our own lives, let each of us ask—not just what will government do for me, but what can I do for myself?”
- “Our children have been taught to be ashamed of their country, ashamed of their parents, ashamed of America’s record at home and of its role in the world. At every turn, we have been beset by those who find everything wrong with America and little that is right. But I am confident that this will not be the judgment of history on these remarkable times in which we are privileged to live.”
- “Let us pledge together to make these next four years the best four years in America’s history, so that on its 200th birthday America will be as young and as vital as when it began, and as bright a beacon of hope for all the world.”
14. Ronald Reagan’s Second Inaugural Address (1985)
- Issues: The end of a recession, the proper scope of government, tax reform, the balanced budget amendment, reduction in nuclear weapons, and Star Wars.
- “[Our] system has never failed us, but, for a time, we failed the system. We asked things of government that government was not equipped to give. We yielded authority to the National Government that properly belonged to States or to local governments or to the people themselves. We allowed taxes and inflation to rob us of our earnings and savings and watched the great industrial machine that had made us the most productive people on Earth slow down and the number of unemployed increase.”
- “But an almost unbroken 50 years of deficit spending has finally brought us to a time of reckoning. We have come to a turning point, a moment for hard decisions. I have asked the Cabinet and my staff a question, and now I put the same question to all of you: If not us, who? And if not now, when? It must be done by all of us going forward with a program aimed at reaching a balanced budget. We can then begin reducing the national debt.”
- “We must act now to protect future generations from Government’s desire to spend its citizens’ money and tax them into servitude when the bills come due. Let us make it unconstitutional for the Federal Government to spend more than the Federal Government takes in.”
- “[W]e are all Americans pledged to carry on this last, best hope of man on Earth.”
- “Now, for decades, we and the Soviets have lived under the threat of mutual assured destruction[…] Is there either logic or morality in believing that if one side threatens to kill tens of millions of our people, our only recourse is to threaten killing tens of millions of theirs?”
- “We stand together again at the steps of this symbol of our democracy—or we would have been standing at the steps if it hadn’t gotten so cold. Now we are standing inside this symbol of our democracy.”
- “Now we hear again the echoes of our past: a general falls to his knees in the hard snow of Valley Forge; a lonely President paces the darkened halls, and ponders his struggle to preserve the Union; the men of the Alamo call out encouragement to each other; a settler pushes west and sings a song, and the song echoes out forever and fills the unknowing air.”
15. Bill Clinton’s Second Inaugural Address (1997)
- Issues: Globalization, the Information Age, the role of Government, education, terrorism, crime, welfare reform, and the environment.
- “America stands alone as the world’s indispensable nation.”
- “Today we can declare: Government is not the problem, and government is not the solution. We – the American people – we are the solution. Our founders understood that well and gave us a democracy strong enough to endure for centuries, flexible enough to face our common challenges and advance our common dreams in each new day.”
- “The divide of race has been America’s constant curse. And each new wave of immigrants gives new targets to old prejudices. Prejudice and contempt, cloaked in the pretense of religious or political conviction, are no different. These forces have nearly destroyed our nation in the past. They plague us still. They fuel the fanaticism of terror. And they torment the lives of millions in fractured nations all around the world.”
- “As this new era approaches we can already see its broad outlines. 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.”
- “Our land of new promise will be a nation that meets its obligations, a nation that balances its budget, but never loses the balance of its values. A nation where our grandparents have secure retirement and health care, and their grandchildren know we have made the reforms necessary to sustain those benefits for their time. A nation that fortifies the world’s most productive economy even as it protects the great natural bounty of our water, air, and majestic land.”
- “Prosperity and power, yes, they are important, and we must maintain them. But let us never forget: The greatest progress we have made, and the greatest progress we have yet to make, is in the human heart. In the end, all the world’s wealth and a thousand armies are no match for the strength and decency of the human spirit.”
16. George W Bush’s Second Inaugural Address (2005)
- Issue: Liberating other countries.
- “There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.”
- “So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
- “America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains, or that women welcome humiliation and servitude, or that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies.”
17. Barack Obama’s Second Inaugural Address (2013)
- Issues: tax reform, school reform, protection of social security, medicaid and medicare, climate change, the end of a decade of war, equal pay for women, gay rights, voter rights, promotion of immigration, and protecting children from violence.
- “We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”
- “[N]o one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation.”
- “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”
- “It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity — until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia, to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.”