Sixteen presidents before Barack Obama got a second chance at giving an inaugural address for the ages. Most didn’t make much of it. Abraham Lincoln is the grand exception.
George Washington, who began the tradition of the inaugural address in 1789:
- "The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people."
Thomas Jefferson, 1801, after a divisive election tested the young democracy:
- "Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists."
Abraham Lincoln, 1861, struggling to hold the United States together:
- "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."
Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933, bracing a nation devastated by the Great Depression:
- "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."
John F. Kennedy, 1961, grasping the generational torch in a speech flush with memorable lines:
- "And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."
Ronald Reagan, 1981, recasting Washington's role:
- "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."
Abraham Lincoln, 1865, on reuniting the Civil War-torn nation:
- "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."
Woodrow Wilson, 1917, readying reluctant Americans to join World War I:
- "We are provincials no longer. 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."
Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1937, as the Depression dragged on:
- "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."