Best and Worst Inaugural Addresses

PHOTO: William Henry Harrison inauguration
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The 5 Best, 2 Worst Inaugural Addresses

Inaugural addresses, it is said, are usually not very good. Most have been long forgotten, and historians themselves point to few as memorable.

It's not entirely clear why, but the moment might have something to do with it. Book-ending divisive national campaigns, inaugural addresses offer token unity sentiments, hopefulness but not always specific hopes, and even some good ones sound myopic.

"Most inaugural addresses are not remembered," said Columbia University professor and noted presidential historian Eric Foner. "Grover Cleveland? I have no idea what he said in his."

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"I have actually read every single inaugural, and it was a really boring experience," said Robert Lehrman, a former speechwriter for vice president Al Gore, who now teaches the craft at American University in Washington. "Most of the speeches are terrible. Even the ones we remember, I don't think there is any reporter working anywhere that couldn't write language as crisp or concrete as the majority of them."

Some presidents have it, and some don't. Abraham Lincoln's two addresses are both revered as thoughtful and eloquent. At least two of FDR's, in 1933 and 1937, won favorable mentions from an expert.

Historians seem to like President Obama's first inaugural address, delivered four years ago, but some speechwriters don't, as NPR recently noted. Obama's first address didn't have a signature line, something the best inaugural addresses often do.

What follows is a compendium of the best and worst, culled from the generous and helpful recommendations of Foner, Lehrman, and Duke University history professor William Chafe.

This post has been updated. Foner was inaccurately identified as a professor at Princeton, not Columbia. The error has been corrected.

PHOTO: Abraham Lincoln's 1861 inauguration
Joseph Boggs Beale/George Eastman House/Getty Image
Best: Lincoln's 1st, 1861

Some say it takes a backseat to his second inaugural address, but Abraham Lincoln's first was a long-ish, pensive study of how a president can uphold the Constitution when the issue of slavery so clearly divided the nation.

"Unlike many political leaders, he directly addressed the arguments of his opponents and picked them apart," Princeton's Foner said. The first address was "delivered at the greatest crisis in the nation's history, with the nation falling apart."

Lincoln addressed the law that runaway slaves must be returned to their owners, the possibility of secession and the federal government's role in keeping the nation together.

And it included one of the more memorable lines of any inaugural address: "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."

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PHOTO: Lincoln had no intention of abolishing slavery when he became president.
Getty Images
Best: Lincoln's 2nd, 1865

Lincoln's second edition in 1865 might not have delivered a signature line as lasting as his first, but historians rank it as one of the most eloquent inaugural addresses ever delivered.

It is considered "one of the greatest speeches in American history, maybe the greatest of the inaugural addresses," Foner said.

Lincoln's second inaugural address was also short: about one-fifth as long as his first try. It dealt gravely with the terror of the Civil War, as Lincoln explained it: "Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came."

He closed: "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."

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PHOTO: One of the most innovative and daring politicians of the 20th century was also a triskaidekaphobe. Franklin D. Roosevelt would not travel when the 13th fell on a Friday. Along with Napoleon, J. Paul Getty and Herbert Hoover, he was one of history's
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Best: FDR's 1st, 1933

Taking office in the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt sought to reassure the nation in what remains its most desperate economic time in history.

In doing so, he delivered one of the most memorable lines of any U.S. speech, ever, and he didn't even wait until the end.

"First of all, 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," FDR said in the fifth sentence of his speech. "In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days."

His first inaugural address makes this list for having included that signature line, but historians also revere his second, delivered in 1937, which offered a bit more hope and announced that "We are moving toward an era of good feeling." FDR's signature line in that speech, less memorable than that in his first, was: "I see one third of a nation ill housed, ill clad, ill nourished."

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PHOTO: President Ronald Reagan gestures during a news conference in the White House East Room on June 15, 1984, Washington, D.C.
Ira Schwarz/AP Photo
Best: Reagan's 1st, 1981

Criticized by some as unsubstantial, Ronald Reagan's first inaugural address wins more praise for eloquence.

"It's concrete and filled with imagery and moving even to someone like me who didn't agree with a single word he said," said Lehrman, the former speechwriter for Al Gore.

Also taking office amid bad economic times, Reagan offered a vision of unity and American self-reliance. "We hear much of special interest groups," Reagan said. "Well, our concern must be for a special interest group that has been too long neglected ... They are, in short, 'We the people,' this breed called Americans."

And maybe his pithiest line: "We are a nation that has a government, not the other way around."

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PHOTO: Senator John F. Kennedy of Mass., delivers a campaign speech, Oct. 25, 1960 in St. Charles, Illinois.
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Best: Kennedy, 1961

Kennedy is known as an inspiring political figure, and his inaugural address in 1961 has come to symbolize that part of his legacy.

"I think John F. Kennedy's is probably one of the most notable because of its ringing eloquence and clarity with which he set forth the challenge to the American people," said William Chafe, the Duke history professor.

That challenge became Kennedy's best known, and most oft-quoted line: "And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

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PHOTO: William Henry Harrison inauguration
Bettmann/Corbis
Worst: William Henry Harrison, 1841

Often noted as the worst inaugural address in history, William Henry Harrison's speech in 1841 was long, delivered in cold weather and preceded his death by 32 days.

It lasted an hour and 45 minutes, according to archive Bartleby.com, and was delivered in a snowstorm. Harrison died of pneumonia a month later.

"He gave the longest address," Lehrman said, "and it was totally boring. The myth is that he stood outside without a coat and had and he died afterwards, which he did, but you don't catch cold from cold weather ... maybe somebody sneezed on him."

Nonetheless, the myth of Harrison's speech, combined with its length and lack of rhetorical appeal, put it on the list of worst addresses.

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PHOTO: George Washington's 1793 inauguration
Jean Leon Gerome Ferris/Library of Congress
Worst: George Washington's 2nd, 1793

Washington is remembered as a great leader, but maybe not the greatest orator.

His second inaugural address wasn't much of an address, at 134 words.

"He just said, 'Well, I'm here, and we got to go on,'" Lehrman said.

The entirety of it reads: "I am again called upon by the voice of my country to execute the functions of its Chief Magistrate. When the occasion proper for it shall arrive, I shall endeavor to express the high sense I entertain of this distinguished honor, and of the confidence which has been reposed in me by the people of united America. Previous to the execution of any official act of the President the Constitution requires an oath of office. This oath I am now about to take, and in your presence: That if it shall be found during my administration of the Government I have in any instance violated willingly or knowingly the injunctions thereof, I may (besides incurring constitutional punishment) be subject to the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony."

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