Signs of the Time
An inaugural address reflects the era in which it's delivered. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt explained in his third inaugural address on January 20, 1941, every president faces a different challenge:
"On each national day of inauguration since 1789, the people have renewed their sense of dedication to the United States. In Washington's day the task of the people was to create and weld together a nation. In Lincoln's day the task of the people was to preserve that Nation from disruption from within. In this day the task of the people is to save that Nation and its institutions from disruption from without."
Identifying themes in inaugural addresses and watching the different ways in which they are discussed from one address to another can illuminate social changes over time. For example, the discussion of communism in inaugural addresses from the mid- to late-twentieth century offers one example of how ideas and platforms can change. In the wake of World War II, Harry Truman's 1949 inaugural address defined communism as:
"[A] false philosophy which purports to offer freedom, security, and greater opportunity to mankind. Misled by this philosophy, many peoples have sacrificed their liberties only to learn to their sorrow that deceit and mockery, poverty and tyranny, are their reward."
Dwight Eisenhower responded to the changing events in Eastern Europe in the 1950s. His 1957 inaugural address targeted "International Communism" as he proclaimed:
"Budapest is no longer merely the name of a city; henceforth it is a new and shining symbol of man's yearning to be free."
While John F. Kennedy didn't directly mention communism in his 1961 inaugural address, it was his apparent topic when he said:
"Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction."
Almost a decade later, Jimmy Carter's 1977 inaugural address emphasized the potential outcome of a number of foreign affairs when he said:
"I would hope that the nations of the world might say that we had built a lasting peace, built not on weapons of war but on international policies which reflect our own most precious values."
More than a decade later, George H.W. Bush avoided Cold War rhetoric, proclaiming in his inaugural address :
"Great nations of the world are moving toward democracy through the door to freedom. Men and women of the world move toward free markets through the door to prosperity. The people of the world agitate for free expression and free thought through the door to the moral and intellectual satisfactions that only liberty allows."
By the time Bill Clinton delivered his first inaugural address in 1993 , he was able to speak of the Cold War in the past tense and focus his attention on America's economy:
"Today, a generation raised in the shadows of the Cold War assumes new responsibilities in a world warmed by the sunshine of freedom but threatened still by ancient hatreds and new plagues. Raised in unrivaled prosperity, we inherit an economy that is still the world's strongest, but is weakened by business failures, stagnant wages, increasing inequality, and deep divisions among our people."
Today, national and global changes are swift and often dramatic. Recalling what our place in history has been may help us rediscover, as a nation, who we are and what we may be. Is it time to pause and take stock? As a nation, where are we? What are appropriate national goals for our time?
What will history see as signs of our times?