Obama’s Speech: How Does it Stack Up to History?

Nate Gillespie asked:

In January, Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States, taking his oath of office on the steps of the Capitol before what is believed to be the largest crowd ever to witness a presidential inaugural in person.

Following the swearing in ceremony—which was conducted on Abraham Lincoln’s bible—Obama gave a powerful speech, promising the American people that they could and would unite to overcome the economic and military difficulties facing the nation. “Our challenges may be new,” the president said. “The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends—honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism—these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility—a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and the promise of citizenship.”

Instant reviews of Obama’s speech from the TV talking heads were quite positive, and the huge crowds along the Washington Mall roared their approval. But will Obama’s inaugural address stand the test of time? How will Obama’s speech go down in history?

Only time will tell. But truth be told, the historical bar against Obama’s words will be judged is actually pretty low.

Yes, a few presidents’ inaugurals have gone down as great moments in our history.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan memorably encapsulated his own philosophy and set the political agenda for an entire generation with his declaration that “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

In 1961, John F. Kennedy captured the imaginations of a more idealistic generation by asking his fellow citizens, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt helped lift his countrymen’s spirits at the darkest hour of the Great Depression by declaring, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

In 1865, Abraham Lincoln began to heal the wounds of the Civil War by closing his second inaugural with the words, “With malice toward none; with charity for all… let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds… to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

And in 1801, Thomas Jefferson tried to soothe the nation’s original partisan discord by proclaiming, in the wake of a bitter election fight, “We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists.”

Those were all, without a doubt, successful inaugural speeches. (And perhaps not coincidentally, those were all successful presidents.)

But what about the other 39 presidents and the other 50 inaugural addresses? They mostly fall somewhere on a spectrum ranging from forgettably mediocre to memorably awful.

John Quincy Adams, who was often criticized for being an out-of-touch elitist with no clue how to relate to ordinary people, did nothing to challenge that reputation in 1825 when he began his presidency with this whopper of a sentence: “In compliance with an usage coeval with the existence of our Federal Constitution, and sanctioned by the example of my predecessors in the career upon which I am about to enter, I appear, my fellow-citizens, in your presence and in that of Heaven to bind myself by the solemnities of religious obligation to the faithful performance of the duties allotted to me in the station to which I have been called.” No one was too shocked when Adams was defeated four years later by “man of the people” Andrew Jackson.

James Buchanan, often ranked by historians as the worst president ever, took office in 1857 at a moment when the nation was torn by bitter sectional controversy over slavery. In his inaugural address, he essentially told the country to just get over it: “Most happy it will be for the country when the public mind shall be diverted from this question to others of more pressing and practical importance,” he said. Most unhappy it was for the country when Buchanan’s head-in-the-sand approach led directly to the Civil War.

Warren G. Harding turned his inaugural into a long discourse on his personal philosophy of business. The speech was said to bore listeners to tears.

But the worst inaugural address in American history, without a doubt, belonged to William Henry Harrison. For his 1841 inauguration, Harrison penned a monumental 8,500-word treatise, much of it devoted to explaining—for reasons that remain baffling even today—obscure lessons from ancient Roman history. Undeterred by a ferocious blizzard on inauguration day, Harrison refused to wear his overcoat and insisted on plowing through the entire two-hour speech, bitter cold be damned. Then he caught a wicked case of pneumonia and died 31 days later.

To this day, William Henry Harrison holds the all-time records for both the longest inaugural speech and the shortest presidency. At Shmoop, we hope that neither record will ever be broken.

If we can be fairly certain that no incoming president’s inaugural address will ever beat William Henry Harrison for length, we can be equally sure that none will ever beat George Washington for brevity. Washington’s second inaugural, delivered in 1793, was exactly four sentences long—less than 150 words. While no one made a recording of the speech, for obvious reasons, our best guess is that the address lasted two or maybe three minutes.

And that, friends and countrymen, is why George Washington is on the dollar bill and William Henry Harrison is… dead of pneumonia.

Obama’s speech, delivered on another cold winter’s day in Washington, clocked in at about 17 minutes, which is just about average for modern times; every inaugural since 1980 has lasted between 14 and 22 minutes.

While it’s too soon to say whether Obama’s words will go down in history alongside the great speeches from Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy et al, there is no question that Obama’s inaugural was historic in nature. Apart from the obvious—yet still remarkable—fact that Barack Obama just became our nation’s first black president, his inaugural itself was unlike any that ever came before. More people crowded into Washington, DC, to see January’s events in person than for any previous presidential inauguration. That crowd—which reflected the Obama campaign organization in its unusual size, diversity, and enthusiasm—may well end up being the feature of Obama’s inauguration best remembered by history. That crowd reflected the feeling that something special happened, that Obama’s inauguration into the White House marked the renewal of America’s democratic spirit.

Like most eruptions of democratic enthusiasm, Obama’s inaugural festivities had both their positive and negative aspects. On the one hand, it was hard not to be moved by images of American flags waving over hundreds of thousands of happy faces, all wide smiles and tears of joy, their voices filling the Mall with chants and cheers of jubilation. On the other hand, the same crowd greeted outgoing president George W. Bush with widespread booing and even a taunting song of “Nah nah nah nah, hey hey hey, goodbye!” Not too classy… but still not nearly as bad as the crowd of Andrew Jackson supporters who trashed the White House in 1829, breaking antique furniture and tracking mud all over the place, or the mob of Abraham Lincoln fans who ran off with the White House silverware in 1865.

Will Barack Obama’s presidency live up to the phenomenal excitement of his inauguration day? History will be the judge of that.

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