"I do solemnly swear...:" Reflecting on Great Inaugural Addresses

The Capitol during Obama's 2009 Inauguration AddressThe Capitol during Obama's 2009 Inauguration AddressSince 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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Barack Obama's First Inaugural Address

I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.
--Barack Obama, January 20, 2009
Read the entire speech online.
View the speech on YouTube.
Discussion Questions:
Is it possible for us to perceive this address in the same way that we did when President Obama delivered it? Contrastingly, given that Mr. Obama’s presidency is ongoing and that many of the issues to which this address refers remain at the forefront, is it possible for us to perceive it with the same degree of retrospect with which we perceive the other inaugural addresses represented here?
The questions posed in #1 above raise a broader question that historians often ask. Whose perception of a particular historical development is more accurate: those who are living through it and experiencing it subjectively, or those who have already lived through it (or, perhaps, were born long after it occurred) and can now analyze it with more objectivity? Which is more beneficial: immediacy or hindsight?
Speaking of the relationship between the past and the future, folklorist Henry Glassie writes, "Tradition is the creation of the future out of the past"* Throughout this address, President Obama asserts that we should draw inspiration and guidance from our national past as we proceed into the future. In that sense, this entire address might be described as an appeal to tradition. Do you agree? What passages support your answer?    
*Henry Glassie, "Tradition," in Eight Words for the Study of Expressive Culture, ed. Burt Feintuch (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 376.
President Obama's election in 2008 was won on a platform for hope and change. How do you feel his first term has addressed the type of changes Americans were looking for? "Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. Out health care is too costly, our schools fail too many, and each day brings further evidence that we ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet." What does our economy look like four years after his speech in regards to foreclosures, unemployment, health care and the way we care for our environment? 
President Obama remarks, "As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals."  Do you agree with this assertion? What are some of its practical implications? How does it compare with Benjamin Franklin’s comment, "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety?"*
*Benjamin Franklin, "Pennsylvania Assembly: Reply to the Governor, November 11, 1755," in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Leonard W. Labaree, vol. 6, p. 242 (1963).
President Obama argues that "it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things…who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom," and he contrasts them with others who, in his view, have not contributed as substantially to America's success. The notion that some people actively contribute to society while others passively reap the benefits of their contributions has been a recurring theme in American political discourse from John Taylor of Caroline to Illinois' own William Jennings Bryan to Ayn Rand, but Americans have often disagreed vigorously with one another as to exactly who belongs in each of the two categories. Do you believe that the classification of people into "makers" and "takers," so to speak, is a valid or useful way of thinking about American social and economic dynamics?
Read the second inaugural address online.

Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address

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

Read the entire speech online

Discussion Questions: 

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?

Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address

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

Read the entire speech online
Listen to the entire speech online

Discussion Questions:

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?

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address

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

Read the entire speech online
Watch or listen to the entire speech online

Discussion Questions: 

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?

John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address

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

Read the entire speech online
Watch the entire speech on YouTube

Discussion Questions:

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?

Ronald Reagan’s First Inaugural Address

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

Read the entire speech online
Watch the entire speech on YouTube

Discussion Questions:

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?