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‘My fellow citizens’: the inaugural address through the ages

by Julia Paskin | Take Two®

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WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 16: Workers prepare the West Front of the US Capitol for the upcoming inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump January 16, 2017 in Washington, DC. Authorities expect tens of thousands of supporters and protesters to descend on Washington for Friday's Inauguration ceremony. (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images) Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Tomorrow, Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. Following the oath of office, the president will give his inaugural address as every president has done since George Washington. 

This first speech given in office is seen as a hallmark of an incoming administration and is an implied part of the pomp and circumstance of the day. The funny thing is, there's nothing in writing that says a president has to do it at all. 

With that in mind, we wanted to know, how did the inaugural address evolve into such an important moment? So, for some inaugural address history, Take Two's Libby Denkmann spoke with Eric Rauchway. He's an author and history professor at UC Davis.  

George Washington and the first inaugural address

Gilbert Stuart (American, 1755 - 1828 ), George Washington, c. 1821, oil on wood, Gift of Thomas Jefferson Coolidge IV in memory of his great-grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, his grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Coolidge II, and his father, Thomas Jefferson Coolidge III
Gilbert Stuart (American, 1755 - 1828 ), George Washington, c. 1821, oil on wood, Gift of Thomas Jefferson Coolidge IV in memory of his great-grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, his grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Coolidge II, and his father, Thomas Jefferson Coolidge III image courtesy National Gallery of Art

Washington started it when he first came into office. He knew that his principle job as president was going to be deciding what the job of president was together with Congress. So, he wanted to reassure people that he was going to give due deference to congress as well as exercise his authority to the best of his ability. That was the purpose of his original inaugural and presidents have since followed suit.

Thomas Jefferson: a call for unity (1801) 

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

"We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists" 

Jefferson came to power after the 1800 election which was a tied election in the Electoral College. It had to go to the House of Representatives for resolution and it took them 35 ballots to finally decide that Jefferson should be president. So, it was a bitterly fought election, very close, and one that resulted in a transfer of power from Jefferson's political opponent, John Adams and the Federalist party to Jefferson, leader of the Democratic Republican party. So, Jefferson really wanted— after that struggle and after that rather unpleasant campaign which included a lot of slurs— so reassure people that he was going to be, as we would say now, president of all Americans. 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt: in the face of fascism (1933)

Franklin D. Roosevelt takes the Oath of Office as President of the United States in 1933 in Washington, D.C.
Franklin D. Roosevelt takes the Oath of Office as President of the United States in 1933 in Washington, D.C. National Archives/Getty Images

"Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" 

This was after the last long period between election and inauguration. It used to be that presidents were inaugurated in March. So, Roosevelt was elected in November of '32 and didn't take office until March of '33 at which time The Depression got even worse and banks had begun to fail. In fact, by the time Roosevelt took office, banks were shuttered around much of the country, there was a run on the dollar in the international markets. And meanwhile, you have this 4-year crisis where there's about 25% unemployment in the United States as indeed in much of the world. That crisis had led to Adolf Hitler coming to power in Germany at roughly the same time. So Roosevelt recognized there was a tremendous political crisis at home and abroad. And a crisis in the faith that people had in their ability to govern themselves. So he was addressing that by saying, that the only thing we have to fear is... the fear that makes us act in an unreasoning fashion...."

John F. Kennedy: legendary orator (1961)

President John F. Kennedy delivered his inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1961.
President John F. Kennedy delivered his inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1961. /AP

"And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country"

It's a beautifully written speech and Kennedy was a great speaker. Those two things together have made Kennedy's relatively few addresses often quite memorable. He was there calling Americans to action. He was the president to speak to and to speak for the large generation of youths which we've come to know as the baby boomers who felt rather inspired by this young president who has succeeded the older Eisenhower. And so he was calling folks to action. He was calling the world to action. He went on to say, ‘ask not what American will do for you, but what together, we can do for the freedom of Man.’ And announcing in very well written and almost poetic phrases, a new mission for the United States. 

Ronald Reagan: a departure from the past (1981)

Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan at his [residential inauguration on Jan. 20, 1981, in Washington, D.C.
Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan at his [residential inauguration on Jan. 20, 1981, in Washington, D.C. RTNSaola / MediaPunch

"In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem"

Reagan sort of did a U-turn against the tendencies of The New Deal, and Kennedy's New Frontier, and Johnson's Great Society. He began to suggest that we shouldn't expect to be able to use public resources to further our welfare. But rather that we should return to using private energies as had been the case before The Great Depression to a larger extent. 

The influence of media on the presidency

Once you begin getting film, especially film together with sound early in the 20th century, the president becomes more important as an individual. Before that, he's basically a party leader and people vote for the party. Usually, the parties would distribute ballots and they would already by pre-filled-out... and folks would just cast that ballot. But once you begin getting into an era of more mass enfranchisement and an era where you can actually see or hear the president speak, it becomes a question of judging the character or the personality of someone that will be very soon coming into your movie theater, coming over your wireless set, or by television, coming into your living room. 

Looking towards Donald Trump's inauguration

It's hard to say. So many things about this president-elect and his campaign have been unexpected... and so, I suppose we should expect more of the same. His camp has let out that apparently he's written the speech himself and hopes to do it in the Jacksonian mold— certainly invoking Andrew Jackson. It's hard to know quite what that would entail.... So, I guess we will just have to see. 

Quotes edited for clarity

Catch NPR's special coverage of the presidential inauguration tomorrow live on 89.3 KPCC. 

To hear the interview, click on the Blue Media Player above

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