Inaugural Lines for the Ages

inauguralPresident Obama's Second Inaugural has been delivered. It is the 57th in the annals of Inaugurals, beginning with George Washington's in 1789 in New York City. One observer thought our first president was "more agitated and embarrassed than ever he was by the levelled cannon or pointed musket."

President Obama, by contrast, was his usual poised and eloquent self.  Watching on television, I wondered if any of his words would ring through history.  Will we remember, "My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it---so long as we seize it together"?  Or will posterity remember any lines at all?

There are a few Inaugural lines that have achieved immortality. Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you---ask what you can do for your country" will resonate as long as America endures. So will Lincoln's "With malice toward none, and charity for all" Second Inaugural.  And FDR's  "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" First Inaugural.

I came across the other day at  Oak Lawn's gem of a library the book "American Inaugurals: The Speeches, the Presidents, and Their Times" by Kristen Woronoff. Rummaging through this Inaugural trove, I unearthed  a few more Inaugural lines that have  a contemporary tenor  about them---if not oratorical brilliance. See what you think.

"The American experiment has, for generations, fired the passion and the courage of millions elsewhere seeking freedom, equality, and opportunity. And the American story of material progress has helped excite the longing of all needy peoples for some satisfaction of their human wants. Their hopes that we have helped to inspire, we can help to fulfill."  Dwight Eisenhower, 1957

"I have been the subject of abuse and slander scarcely ever equaled in political history, which today I feel that I can afford to disregard in view of  your verdict, which I gratefully accept as my vindication." Ulysses Grant, 1873

"If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it." Thomas Jefferson, 1801

"We have squandered a great part of what we might have used, and have not stopped to conserve the exceeding bounty of nature, without which our genius for enterprise would have been worthless and impotent, scorning to be careful, shamefully prodigal as well as admirably efficient." Woodrow Wilson, 1913

"The laws should be rigidly enforced which prohibit the immigration of a servile class to compete with American Labor." Grover Cleveland, 1885


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  • I guess not much has changed on the immigration front since Grover Cleveland, although I thought the U.S. wanted immigrants to work in the nascent factory culture then.

    The rest is too intellectual to be memorable, except U.S. Grant, which was too petty, but I guess he was then from Illinois.

    I don't think that anything was too memorable this time around other than the somewhat endorsement of gay rights, and probably will be less remembered than Bill Clinton photobombing Kelly Clarkson. But at least it was 11 minutes, as opposed to William Henry Harrison's 2 hour "I'm getting pneumonia" one.

  • In reply to jack:

    Harrison's inaugural address was 8445 words long and lasted an hour and a half.

    Harrison said in the speech that he thought the Constitution should be amended to limit the president to one term. "I give my aid to it [the proposed amendment] by renewing the pledge heretofore given that under no circumstances will I consent to serve a second term."

    He kept his word.

  • He should have reiterated his 'you didn't build that' speech. That really was a proud moment, and right before raising taxes on every single working American...or he could'a just made fun of Nancy Reagan again...

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