Since 1789, Americans have heard forty-three introductions from a freshly sworn-in President: the inaugural address. Whether a new face or a familiar face, a President's introduction sets a specific tone: humble, resolute, urgent, vigorous, transformative. With the successful transfer and continuation of executive power peaceably undertaken, the inaugural address serves as a platform for the incoming administration's principles and policies. The address is aimed at moving the American people towards or away from something fundamental to human nature as it relates to their government. It might be a call to freedom through action; an awakening to virtue and industrious, creative energy; a turn away from fear, isolation, or even, retribution; or a reconstitution of what could be considered best in the American character.
On Monday, Janurary 21, 2013, Americans will hear the second inaugural address of Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th President of the United States. In light of this moment, the Illinois Humanities Council has decided to revisit this collection of inaugural addresses given by presidents during times of conflict, challenge, or great change in the United States, with the addition of President Obama's first inaugural address. We offer a series of reflective exercises accompanying these inaugural addresses and hope that you might consider them alone, or alongside others, as you reflect on President Obama's first term in office and anticipate his second.
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But 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.
-- Thomas Jefferson, March 4, 1801
What does Jefferson mean that "in the other high authorities provided by our Constitution I shall find resources of wisdom, of virtue, and of zeal on which to rely under all difficulties?" (par. 1) What will he find? How can the authorities provided by the Constitution be a source of virtue and zeal?
Jefferson says that "though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable." (par. 2) Does this mean that it should prevail even if it is not rightful and reasonable? Who should say whether it's rightful and reasonable?
Jefferson believes that this government is the world's best hope and the strongest government on earth. Do you agree with him about the U.S. government at that time? Do you believe it is true today?
Consider Jefferson's list of "the essential principles of our Government" in the fourth paragraph. Are these still our essential principles? Is anything missing? Anything obsolete? What principles do you think should guide the Obama administration?
Jefferson closes by saying telling the American electorate that he is "ready to retire from [his office] whenever you become sensible how much better choice it is in your power to make." Can you imagine a President today saying something like this? If so, why don't they? If not, why not?
Jefferson approaches the presidency with great humility, noting a "sincere consciousness that the task is above my talents" and closing by saying he is "ready to retire from it whenever you become sensible how much better choice it is in your power to make." What do you think accounts for Jefferson's humility about becoming President? Is humility a good attribute for a President to have? Why or why not?
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, March 4, 1865
What according to Lincoln's address was the cause of the Civil War? What do you think of his explanation of what brought the country to war?
Lincoln notes that both sides in the war "read the same Bible and prayed to the same God. How did they come to be on opposing sides of the issue of slavery? How do people who supposedly share the same values and principles come to interpret them and act on them differently?
Lincoln gave this address days before the final victory of the Union troops in the Civil War. How does this speech address the deeply divided nation? While the country now is not engaged in civil war, many believe it is deeply divided politically, economically, culturally. How might President Obama address today's divisions both in speech and action?
Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. It can be accomplished in part by direct recruiting by the Government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war, but at the same time, through this employment, accomplishing greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of our natural resources. -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt, March 4, 1933
Franklin Delano Roosevelt's election in 1932 was, in large part, a vote for change. Pledging himself and his administration to a "new deal for the American people," FDR offered a vision of leadership that stood in stark contrast to the Hoover administration of the preceding four years. In his inaugural address, FDR implored Americans to turn away from fear, famously saying, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." What does FDR pose as the contrast to fear? To what in the American character does FDR appeal in order to move the country towards a "restoration?"
Towards the end of the address, FDR employs a specifically martial tone domestically, while striking a conciliatory tone internationally. How does FDR mean to lead this "great army of our people?" Are the implications of this rhetoric justified? Finally, do you think his appeal would find the same traction with a 21st Century American, or global, audience?
FDR's answer to the Great Depression was the New Deal which many argue helped shape the future of liberal politics. Barack Obama, like Roosevelt, is becoming President at another time of great economic turmoil. How does Obama's plan to stimulate job creation compare to The New Deal? Does his plan reinforce Roosevelt's ideas behind "accomplishing greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of natural resources?"
Like Obama's plan, Roosevelt's New Deal was met with concern about spending in lieu of balancing a budget. What other challenges will Obama's plan face that Roosevelt's did not?
FDR's pursued an aggressive agenda in his first 100 days in office. The "first 100 days" has become a time frame for measuring a President's initial performance in office. What do you think should be the focus of Obama's first 100 days?
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.
-- John F. Kennedy, January 20, 1961
In the second paragraph Kennedy asserts a tremendous sense of urgency and crisis-absolutely new possibilities for good and evil. Do we feel this same kind of urgency? If so, has the focus changed? If not, why not?
How do you understand Kennedy's pledge on behalf of the citizens (par 4)? Does the President have the right-or the duty-to make such a pledge on behalf of a nation? Why or why not?
In par. 16 Kennedy proposes bringing "the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations." Is this any longer an ideal to which we, or anyone else, aspires?
Kennedy issues an eloquent summons beginning in par. 22 and culminating in the famous "ask not what your country can do..." section (par. 25). What, exactly, is he asking the citizens to do?
JFK spoke about America's moral responsibility to "those peoples in huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery...." Given America's domestic economic troubles, as well as intense criticism of US foreign policy from sovereign states and international institutions alike, what role, if any, should the US play on the world stage over the next four years? Does it still have a moral responsibility to aid developing countries?
Many believe that JFK symbolized a new voice for a new generation. Does Obama represent a new generation? If so, what is this generation's role in the development of the US? How is this generation different than the one that preceded it?
In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem. From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? All of us together in and out of government must bear the burden.
-- Ronald Reagan, January 20, 1981
Reagan became President at another time of economic challenges. How does he describe those challenges and what does he propose as solutions? What are the differences between the challenges Reagan faced and those faced by President-elect Obama? Between their different solutions to those problems?
Reagan acknowledges that thousands of prayer meetings were being held on inauguration day and proposes that Inauguration Day be declared a day of prayer. What do you think of his recommendation? What role, if any, should prayer have on Inauguration Day, especially in light of the controversy surrounding Rick Warren's invocation at the Obama inauguration?
Reagan believed that small government encouraged personal responsibility and resourcefulness, while big government, with a more burdensome tax system and fewer incentives to sacrifice and take risks, stifled the entrepreneurial spirit. Do you believe this to be true? Why or why not? Within the current economic climate and with measures to expand government, how can Obama encourage growth, development and creativity in America?
Reagan stated "In the present (economic) crisis, government is not the solution to our problem." Many believe that the current economic crisis has shaken this belief--that lack of government intervention and oversight have played a significant role in the downturn of the American economy. How involved should government be in stimulating and regulating the American economy, not simply during times of economic crisis, but during times of economic stability as well?