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Top of the Class

How would you rank the inaugural addresses of every American president since Washington? It’s like a teacher marking student papers. And that’s what gave me the idea to download all the inaugural addresses, read them and lay them out on my board table in a rank order. Then to simplify, I grouped them in thirds—a rough bell curve.

I had the same problem with this exercise as I’ve had

marking real student papers. What criteria are appropri- ate? Are my impressions colored by my personal biases or knowledge of the students (presidents)? What about the variable of the topic chosen? Am I marking content or the creative turns of phrase I read?

I am surely influenced by the lens of history. The high-

minded rhetoric about freedom and liberty comes across as ironic during the slave era. The defense of states’ rights in the years leading up to the Civil War may have been clever conciliation, political expediency or denial.

FDR’s long tenure affects my reading of his inaugurals. My view of Kennedy’s inaugural is colored by knowing of his tragic end. My views of Johnson and Nixon are colored by the Viet Nam War and their tragic political ends. Reagan and Clinton are known as good speakers and it’s difficult to ignore these preconceptions.

How do I judge the first few inaugurals against the last few? The last presidents have a few dozen precedents to guide them; the first few are blazing trails.

I tried to ignore these variables. I also tried to ignore what is relatively common to all inaugurals—praise for the country and its principles, reference to God and asking for bipartisan support. I also tried to ignore mundane messages better suited to a throne speech in the parlia- mentary system. These messages are about building canals and roads, expanding the territory and the need for governmental good works.

Technology can skew the ranking. It’s hard to avoid “hear- ing” FDR’s patrician accent, JFK’s unique Boston accent or

LBJ’s drawl. We’ve heard modern presidents countless times on audio, on video and in news reports. Some film is in color. Some presidents scurry around at high speed because of the workings of old film cameras. How to compare these speakers with the stiff pictures and draw- ings we have of the first two dozen presidents?

So, like marking papers in university classes, it’s all unfair. But when you get a mark, you get one person’s considered opinion. Somebody has to be at the top of the class. Not all can be above average. What follows is the top of the class— my biases and all.

There are always surprises in history, in a class of students and in marking papers. The surprises (not in any order) at the top of this class of inaugural speakers are Hoover, Hayes, McKinley, Coolidge and Eisenhower.


Hoover was an exceptional engineer and secretary of commerce who had the misfortune to take office in the year of the 1929 stock-market crash. He gets marks for organization—one of the few presidents to use headings. Hoover was on the wrong side with the League of Nations, arguing that America could do more good independently and outside the League. But he spoke well about the criminal justice system, world peace and a range of public-policy issues.


Speaking twelve years after the end of the Civil War, Rutherford B. Hayes spent most of his address on the reconstruction of the South and racial equality. He calls for one six-year term for the president, something Ronald Reagan was still speaking about (but not in his inaugurals) more than 100 years later.


William McKinley was the first president to be recorded and to have a motion picture taken of his inaugural. He spent a lot of time on the financial system—gold reserves, banking, currency and bimetallism (silver and gold as joint monetary standards). Given that his opponent in the 1896 election, William Jennings Bryan, electrified his Democratic convention with his “Cross of Gold” speech, McKinley was probably wise to address this contentious issue. In his second inaugural, he deals with the budgetary surplus, of which he is proud. He turns a memorable phrase with “Dark pictures and gloomy forebodings are worse than useless.”

McKinley is one of the first presidents to orient America in the world. He speaks of trade, “peaceful arbitration” among world powers and spreading “liberty to others”—China, Cuba and the Philippines.


By 1925, Calvin Coolidge was adhering to convention by dealing with America’s place in the world. He spoke of the need for an appropriately sized military and more directly about America’s “obligation to bestow justice and liberty upon less favored peoples.” He contended that his country had “made freedom a birthright.” He advocated international arbitration and a “Permanent Court of International Justice.”

Now famous for another speech in which he said, “the business of America is business,” Coolidge also spoke in his inaugural address of business and the dysfunction of public ownership of railroads and utilities. He supported states’ rights, discussed the tax system, and was against waste, “foreign dominions” and “any religious test to the holding of office.” Was he foreshadowing economist Arthur Laffer’s work and supply-side economics? He said, “I am opposed to extremely high [tax] rates, because they produce little or no revenue.”


Eisenhower is a surprise because film shows him as an older man, leaving office and warning of the dangers of the “military-industrial complex.” He was famous for mangling his syntax. But he also wrote speeches for General MacArthur, and his inaugurals are a pleasant surprise. He was one of the few presidents to appreciate the grand sweep of history, citing events in Asia and Europe through the century. He supports world trade.

It is still an open question whether we are “nearing the light—a day of freedom and of peace for all mankind? Or are the shadows of another night closing in upon us?” Foreshadowing Kennedy’s similar quote, Ike pointed out that “[s]cience seems ready to confer upon us, as its final gift, the power to erase human life from this planet.” In a typical American egalitarian moment, he tipped his hat to average working people and noted that “we, the people, elect leaders not to rule but to serve.”

Finally, as all orderly military people might, Eisenhower listed nine “fixed principles.” He supported the UN and regional alliances, denounced war and spoke in favor of freedom and equality.

In his second inaugural, Ike mentioned Russia by name for the first time and denounced International Communism. He continued the theme of “mutual dependence—[which] makes isolation an impossibility.”

But here’s what’s really surprising in Eisenhower’s language—short, memorable sound bites, well before that terminology became known, let alone popular:

May we pursue the right—without self-righteousness.

May we know unity—without conformity.

May we grow in strength—without pride in self.

May we, in our dealings with all peoples of the earth, ever speak truth and serve justice.

Note the dashes as a reminder to pause and the prayer-like repetition ”

of “May we

A more secular passage follows:

In our nation work and wealth abound. Our population grows. Commerce crowds our rivers and rails, our skies, harbors, and highways. Our soil is fertile, our agriculture productive. The air rings with the song of our industry—rolling mills and blast furnaces, dynamos, dams, and assembly lines—the chorus of America the bountiful.

Returning to the biblical cadence, Ike says,

Splendid as can be the blessings of such a peace, high will be its cost: in toil patiently sustained, in help honorably given, in sacri- fice calmly borne.

Ending his speech, Ike echoes the earlier supplication,

May the light of freedom, coming to all darkened lands, flame brightly—until at last the darkness is no more.

May the turbulence of our age yield to a true time of peace

Almost as surprising as the group named above are Grant, Truman, and Johnson. Expected class leaders are Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Kennedy (chronologically ordered).


Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, was a notorious hard drinker who boasted that the voters would rather have him drunk than his opponent sober. His contemporary, U.S. Grant, was another hard-drinking politician, and I think I’d rather listen to Grant drunk than to many other speakers sober—or perhaps I’d send a case of what Grant drank to other speakers to perk up their delivery (borrowing from Lincoln’s similar sentiment).

In 1869, Grant was still locked in the convention of not being seen to seek the presidency—“The office has come to me unsought” he said. Later known for the best presidential autobiography, he must have had a hand in some of the clear references to taxation, debt and mining. He cites the English philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill, “remem- bering that the greatest good to the greatest number is the object to be attained.” He looks forward to the day when the current crop of young men will run the country. He promises “careful study” of the situation

of the Indians— “the original occupants of this land”—and of suffrage, which, almost 100 years into the American experiment, is still far from universal. Grant gets marks for addressing these issues directly, regard- less of the progress during his tenure.

In his second inaugural, Grant is still on the theme of civil rights. He notes the slave is now free, “Yet he is not possessed of the civil rights which citizenship should carry with it. This is wrong, and should be corrected. To this correction I stand committed, so far as Executive influence can avail.” He has a paternalistic approach to the Indians, but one that was arguably enlightened for the time.

Grant speaks of the new technology of the telegraph and “rapid transit by steam”—an early version of Al Gore. He is expansionist and even an early world federalist—pondering the time when God will make the world “one nation, speaking one language, and when armies and navies will no longer be required.”


Harry Truman’s inaugural in 1949 was the first to be both televised and broadcast on radio. He’s a surprise because he came to politics late, had been part of a dastardly political machine, and had little financial, party or editorial support when he took over from FDR. But he did well, being the first president to mention the “false philosophy” of Communism. He outlines “four major courses of action”—UN support, world trade, NATO and world aid through scientific advances.

Near the end, repetition adds emphasis:

We are aided by all who wish to live in freedom from fear

We are aided by all who want relief from the lies of propaganda

We are aided by all who desire self-government

We are aided by all who long for economic security

We are aided by all who desire freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom to live their own lives for useful ends.


When one thinks of Lyndon Johnson, it’s hard to avoid picturing him taking press interviews in the washroom, picking up his dogs by the ears or browbeating legislators into submission with what was called “the treatment.” He also had a hard act to follow—his martyred and eloquent predecessor, JFK. It’s impossible to avoid hearing that Southern drawl while reading LBJ’s speech.

But he starts off strong and never looks back. It’s truly one of the great inaugurals in history. By happenstance or plan, this Southerner was

also the first president to have his wife, photo-journalist and campaign chronicler Lady Bird Johnson, stand at his side for the oath of office.

Johnson began by speaking of the “majesty and the meaning of this moment.” He seemed to grasp “change—rapid and fantastic change bearing the secrets of nature, multiplying the nations, placing in uncertain hands new weapons for mastery and destruction, shaking old values, and uprooting old ways.”

He used headings to order his thoughts, as few other presidents did. He was frank about “hopeless poverty,” hunger, people who “suffer and die unattended,” illiteracy, injustice, waste and racial inequality.

He asked the audience to “Think of our world as it looks from the rocket that is heading toward Mars. It is like a child’s globe, hanging in space, the continents stuck to its side like colored maps. We are all fellow passengers on a dot of earth. And each of us, in the span of time, has really only a moment among our companions.” Expansive, prophetic, panoptic, simple, Johnson was a smoker with short-lived family members who was in a hurry to get something done before his time was over.

Johnson said that without a “new purpose for ourselves,” America would become “a nation of strangers.” He defined his “Great Society” as not “the ordered, changeless, and sterile battalion of the ants. It is the excite- ment of becoming—always becoming, trying, probing, falling, resting, and trying again—but always trying and always gaining.”

JFK made space and public service “The New Frontier”; LBJ made it a mental construct of individual and collective progress. Progress also came from “the secret places of the American heart.” But he also evoked the traditional American self-image—”the uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge. It is the star that is not reached and the harvest sleeping in the unplowed ground. Is our world gone? We say ‘Farewell.’ Is a new world coming? We welcome it—and we will bend it to the hopes of man.”


It is fitting that Thomas Jefferson is in the top third of this remarkable

class. In 1801, the language of speeches was more formal, but after a long, humble preamble, Jefferson cites the “sacred principle, that though

the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful ”

must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights

bit of wishful thinking and American myth-making, he notes his coun-

” Keeping

trymen have “banished from our land

with the tradition of appealing beyond partisanship, he says that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.”

Jefferson called for limited government and limited taxation by saying

that no one “shall take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”

He reiterates support for “[e]qual and exact justice to all men

gling alliances with none,” states’ rights, majority rule, maintenance of

a militia with civilian control, economy and habeas corpus.

In a

religious intolerance




In his second inaugural, Jefferson opposes prolonged deficit spending. He notes the aboriginal inhabitants’ plight and the “commiseration their history inspires.” He again supports press freedom:

[When] truth and reason have maintained their ground against false opinions in league with false facts, the press, confined to truth, needs no other legal restraint; the public judgment will correct false reasoning and opinions on a full hearing of all parties; and no other definite line can be drawn between the inestimable liberty of the press and its demoralizing licentiousness.


Lincoln deserves his place at the top of the class. Conventional wisdom makes him one of America’s greatest presidents—having preserved the Union. As a Canadian, I find these perceptions a bit of a mystery. His decision to run for office despite knowing his candidacy alone would probably lead to secession and war was perhaps a mixed leadership and ethical choice. His failure to get Union General McLelland to act and end the war early demonstrated mixed leadership skills. Then there’s slavery. His arguments for states’ rights, a dubious legal discourse on the dissolution of contracts and his emancipating slaves over whom he had no control during the Civil War temper my view of Lincoln. So does presiding over the largest mass execution (of Indians) in US history and suspending habeas corpus.

However, Lincoln gets full marks for a clear first inaugural, addressing the reality of the times. Two weeks before, Jefferson Davis had been inaugurated President of the Confederacy. Lincoln gets right to the


emphasizes that he has “no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” He actually supports the return of runaway or contraband slaves, even if they have escaped to a non-slave state.

Ironically he also denounces “the lawless invasion by armed force of ”

the soil of any State

right to self-determination of any portion of the Union. He likens the

Union to a contract that can only “be peaceably unmade by

parties who made it”—doubtful legally. Continuing his lawyerly analy- sis, he finds the constitution silent on a range of slavery issues and apparently supporting the status quo. He even claims he would support a constitutional amendment entrenching slavery—“I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.”

Lincoln’s second inaugural is short and to the point. He now declares that the war was about both union and slavery and looks forward to

reconstruction, “[w]ith malice toward none, with charity for all

among the people of the Southern States.” He

In a lawyerly fashion, Lincoln argues against the

all the


In his record four inaugural addresses, FDR said more on Inauguration Day than any other president. These and the speeches of the several other presidents who served two terms caused me to couple together those who made more than one inaugural. It would seem silly to have one speech at the head of the class and another by the same man in the middle. For the most part, the multiple inaugurals belong together because of similar style and tone.

FDR was the first president to use radio extensively, and his first address was broadcast. He got right to his plain-speaking point:

“to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly.” It is in this speech in 1933 that he turns his famous phrase, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” But he was also a realist, saying that “[o]nly a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.”

Roosevelt calls for “action” several times, including the relocation of citizens from “industrial centers” to “the land for those best fitted for the land.” He suggests that he may need special executive powers to meet current challenges. In an uplifting moment, he notes that “Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort,” and he outlines his “good neighbor” foreign policy.

In 1937, FDR wanted “to make science a useful servant instead of a ruthless master.” Capitalizing on his personal popularity, he said Americans were “writing a new chapter in our book of self-government [and] not merely doing a patchwork job with secondhand materials.”

Working his theme of newness, action and experimentation, he said “Old truths have been relearned; untruths have been unlearned.” He is also capitalizing on the image of the frontier settler pressing on to a better land:

Shall we pause now and turn our back upon the road that lies ahead? Shall we call this the promised land? Or, shall we continue on our way? For “each age is a dream that is dying, or one that is coming to birth.”

Many voices are heard as we face a great decision. Comfort says, “Tarry a while.” Opportunism says, “This is a good spot.” Timidity asks, “How difficult is the road ahead?”

Repeating the phrase “I see” eight times, he celebrates American wealth and democracy but denounces poverty. He sees “people denied the

necessities of life

“conditions labeled indecent by a so-called polite society half a century ago.” He sees “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.”

the pall of family disaster” hanging over many and

These messages may seem provocative today, but at the time they were what were needed to combat the even more incendiary ideas of Fascism and Communism, ideologies which in the 1930s were seri- ously competing with liberal democracy.

By 1941 Roosevelt was governing a different country. War production was helping the economy, and isolationists and interventionists were watching the Second World War unfold in Europe and Asia. The presi- dent focused on an uplifting message about the repair job he’d done on capitalism and democracy: “Lives of nations are determined not by the count of years, but by the lifetime of the human spirit.”

FDR met bad news and rumors directly and dealt with them:

“Democracy is not dying. We know it because we have seen it revive— and grow.” He spoke of a nation, like a person, as needing nourish- ment. He traced the ancient origins of democracy— “no mere recent phase in human history. It is human history. It permeated the ancient life of early peoples. It blazed anew in the middle ages. It was written in Magna Carta.” This is a remarkable quote, given that millions in Europe and Asia were enslaved or about to become so.

By 1945 Roosevelt is tired and near death, yet in his short inaugural he musters a few thought-provoking phrases. He says Americans have learned to be “citizens of the world” and that the “trend of civilization itself is forever upward.” He quotes Emerson— “The only way to have a friend is to be one.”

FDR harnessed the myth of good and ideal America in two passages:

We shall strive for perfection. We shall not achieve it immedi- ately—but we still shall strive. We may make mistakes—but they must never be mistakes which result from faintness of heart or abandonment of moral principle

We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace; that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other nations far away. We have learned that we must live as men, not as ostriches, nor as dogs in the manger.


I was hoping that John F. Kennedy would not do so well. His oratory and wit are both true and a cliché. When the Simpsons cartoon wants the quintessential politician, it uses the distinctive Kennedy accent. Kennedy’s books, speeches and even news conferences continue to be read, watched and shown for their educative value. As recently as this last Democratic convention, I attended a small group session in which JFK speechwriter Ted Sorensen recounted President Kennedy’s frenetic schedule in the last few months of his life—keeping the Camelot myths and facts alive.

It would have been counterintuitive to find JFK wanting, but I couldn’t

bump him out of the top spot. He has some rehashed quotes and over- formal phrases. On the other hand, my judgment is also colored by knowing he’d be dead less than three years after his inaugural.

But Kennedy is on top, first depoliticizing the event by noting that “we observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom.” He improves on Eisenhower’s trepidation at our ability to exterminate our species by giving it a positive spin: “man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.”

“Let the word go forth

was in 1960. But to appreciate its efficacy, you have to hear the

Kennedy staccato delivery and see him beating a tattoo on the collec- tive chest of his audience with his forefinger. His cadence is ideally suited to the set-up, repeated jabs, and then the payoff. Note that this long sentence that follows sounds like seven shorter ones, followed by

a longer sentence that brings the matter to fruition:

is an archaic, biblical construction now and

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

He reaches out to “peoples in the huts and villages across the globe.” With a typical Kennedy juxtaposition, he notes that “civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

In a few lines of over-formal, even backwards talking, JFK notes the “trumpet summons us again—not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are.” Few other speakers could have delivered this archaic construction well.

Thankfully, he reverts to plain speaking less than a minute later, stat- ing, “I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation.”

Then, in the quintessential moment of high-minded theft from half

a dozen other politicians and political thinkers, JFK says,

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.