A Day to Make History: A Look At Prior Inaugural Addresses

Given the magnitude of today’s inauguration, there are extremely high expectations for President-Elect Obama’s speech. With the historic nature of his own candidacy, the drastic dislike for President Bush, the economic crisis, the inauguration is drawing the biggest crowds in the Mall anyone has seen in at least a generation — far bigger than anti-war protests even in the midst of an unpopular war.

My sense is that Obama will meet the extremely high expectations set for him. His speech is twinned with the Rev. Martin Luther King III. Because of both Obama’s rhetorical style and coincidence, his big speeches invite comparison to King. He will go back to the themes of his Boston Democratic National Convention speech — change and unity — and tailor it for the economic crisis.

Here’s some of the language Obama could pick from to describe aspects of his election(taken from The Lakeside Press’s collection of Inaugural Addresses.)

What the President’s Election Means During a Financial Meltdown

We face the arduous days that lie before us in the warm courage of national unity…We do not distrust the future of essential democracy. The people of the United States have not failed. In their need they have registered a mandate that they want direct, vigorous action. They have asked for discipline and direction under leadership. The have made me the present instrument of their wishes—Franklin Roosevelt, 1933.

Interestingly Roosevelt’s most memorable line from that address came in the fifth sentence of the speech.

Setting Expectations

All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in the lifetime of our planet. But let us begin—John F. Kennedy, 1961.

Today, we’ll also get a dash of Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

On Change

There has been a change of government. It began two years ago, when the House of Representatives became Democratic by a decisive majority. It has now been completed. The Senate about to assemble will also be Democratic. The office of president and vice president have been put into the hands of Democrats. What does change mean? That is the question that is uppermost in our minds today…We shall restore, not destroy. We shall deal with our economic system as it is and as it may be modified, not as it might be if we had a clean sheet of paper to write upon; and step by step we shall make it what it should be, in the spirit of those who question their own wisdom…Woodrow Wilson, 1917.

On Unity

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.—Abraham Lincoln, 1864

Finally, I’d suggest that Obama not borrow from the pedestrian epic of William Harry Harrison in 1841. It went on for an hour and forty-five minutes. Here’s a taste.

Upward of half a century has elapsed since the adoption of the present form of government. It would be an object more highly desirable than the gratification of the curiosity of speculative statesmen if its precise situation could be ascertained, a fair exhibit made of the operations of each of its departments, of the powers which they respectively claim and exercise, of the collisions which have occurred between them or between the whole Government and those of the States or either of them. We could then compare our actual condition after fifty years’ trial of our system with what it was in the commencement of its operations and ascertain whether the predictions of the patriots who opposed its adoption or the confident hopes of its advocates have been best realized. The great dread of the former seems to have been that the reserved powers of the States would be absorbed by those of the Federal Government and a consolidated power established, leaving to the States the shadow only of that independent action for which they had so zealously contended and on the preservation of which they relied as the last hope of liberty. Without denying that the result to which they looked with so much apprehension is in the way of being realized, it is obvious that they did not clearly see the mode of its accomplishment. The General Government has seized upon none of the reserved rights of the States. As far as any open warfare may have gone, the State authorities have amply maintained their rights. To a casual observer our system presents no appearance of discord between the different members which compose it. Even the addition of many new ones has produced no jarring. They move in their respective orbits in perfect harmony with the central head and with each other. But there is still an undercurrent at work by which, if not seasonably checked, the worst apprehensions of our antifederal patriots will be realized, and not only will the State authorities be overshadowed by the great increase of power in the executive department of the General Government, but the character of that Government, if not its designation, be essentially and radically changed. This state of things has been in part effected by causes inherent in the Constitution and in part by the never-failing tendency of political power to increase itself.

Harrison’s speech came during a frigid day with a snowstorm. He promptly spent the rest of the day outside greeting well wishers. He caught a cold that day and died of pneumonia a month later.

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