Image by Phillip Roulain from Pixabay
When President-elect Joe Biden takes the oath of office as president on Jan 20th, he will take his place as the 46th president of the United States of America.
Joe Biden’s inaugural is taking place after the very recent siege of the Capitol, so the security of the event has been extra tightened and the ceremony is expected to be more austere than previous ceremonies as it has to follow Covid-19 protocols.
Whether his inaugural address will make it to the best speeches ever delivered by a U.S. president ,we have to wait and see.
One thing is for sure, following tradition, he will raise his right hand and place his left on a bible and take the following oath
“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States”
In the history of the United States, there has been some inaugural addresses that have made it to the history books as some of the best or more significant.
They all have something in common, the presidents delivering the address took office at a time of crisis-just like President-elect Joe Biden is- and they were not only great orators, but they also knew how to use the art of rhetoric to their own benefit when public speaking.
Let’s look at the most famous inaugural addresses:
The first Inaugural address took place in New York in 1789 when George Washington, the first President of the United Statesunder the U.S. Constitution, took the oath of office.
He talked about a republican form of government and the responsibility of the President and Congress to protect “the sacred fire of liberty”.
George Washington inaugural address 4 years later in 1793, has made history as the shortest ever with only 135 words.
Thomas Jefferson, a fervent Republican, delivered one famous phrase in his 1801 inaugural address.
“we are all republicans: we are all federalists.”
The country was extremely divided at the time and this was interpreted as a sign of unity on his part.
Republicans of the time were accused of being radicals in the same line as the Jacobins of the French Revolution and their revolutionary political movement.
On the other hand, the Federalists, were considered puppets of the British crown and monarchy lovers.
Abraham Lincoln 1861 inaugural address is considered one of the great speeches in American history.
When he took office, the country was on the brink of a civil war and tensions between the North and the South were at an all time high.
He appealed for the preservation of the Union and in an attempt to gain the trust of the secessionists, who wanted to preserve slavery, he argued that the South had nothing to fear from his presidency
“I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”
This is quite shocking to us now, but even at the time, it did nothing to stop a Civil War that broke out soon after his inauguration.
He also delivered a very well known passage:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature”
Four years later, when he took office again in 1865, and had the gigantic task of unifying the nation after the civil war, he delivered a very short speech with a famous conclusion .
“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.”
President Abraham Lincoln , the author of the legendary Gettysburg Address, was killed within a month of his second inauguration.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933 when the country was going through the Great Depression.
A period that created extreme levels of poverty as the nation suffered the worst economic situation ever; mass unemployment, a banking crisis, and an economic collapse that was affecting the poor and even the rich.
“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.”
And taking a stand against the Wall Street bankers, Roosevelt said,
“The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths.”
President John F Kennedy 1961 inaugural address is still celebrated as one of the finest speeches in American history.
It helped that Kennedy was personable and a natural orator just like his contemporary Dr Martin Luther King.
He took office at only 43 at the height of the Cold War and the U.S. civil rights movement and his speech is well known for the effective use of rhetoric thanks in part to his speech writer, Ted Sorensen.
His inaugural address was a call to action by invoking the American dream and bringing hope and optimism to an emerging new generation.
“The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans”.
He appealed Americans to,
“ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
After Kennedy’s ceremony, inaugural addresses have been a bit underwhelming.
Ronald Reagan first inaugural speech in 1981 has been praised as a good speech that called for unity and injected optimism to a nation that was suffering an economic crisis.
And Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president and a natural born orator, 2009 inaugural address has been praised as “heartfelt” thanks to his charisma and youthful energy.
Will President-elect Joe Biden inaugural address make history or be part of an undistinguished lot? We don’t know yet, but he definitely has plenty of material from his predecessors if he is feeling uninspired.