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Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller administering the oath of office to Benjamin Harrison on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol, March 4, 1889

[Detail] Administering the oath of office to Benjamin Harrison, 1889.

Collection Overview

"I Do Solemnly Swear..." Presidential Inaugurations, is a collection of approximately four hundred items or two thousand digital files from each of the fifty-four inaugurations from George Washington's in 1789 to George W. Bush's inauguration of 2001. This presentation includes diaries and letters of presidents and of those who witnessed inaugurations, handwritten drafts of inaugural addresses, broadsides, inaugural tickets and programs, prints, photographs, and sheet music.

Special Features

These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.

  • The American Revolution, 1763-1783
  • The New Nation, 1780-1815
  • Expansion and Reform, 1801-1861
  • The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877
  • Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915
  • Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930
  • The Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945
  • Postwar United States, 1945-early 70's
  • Contemporary United States, 1968-present

Related Collections and Exhibits

These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Also browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.

Other Resources

Recommended additional sources of information.

Search Tips

Specific guidance for searching this collection.

To find items in this collection, search by Keyword or browse by Subject Index, or Inaugurations Index

For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.


U.S. History

"I Do Solemnly Swear . . .": Presidential Inaugurations, provides an overview of inaugural ceremonies throughout United States history. Primary source materials such as drafts of inaugural addresses, letters, illustrations, and photographs are organized chronologically by presidential inauguration. This framework reflects a changing nation as the U.S. expands its borders, enters military conflicts, and celebrates the democratic ideal embodied in the peaceful transition of power within the inaugural ceremony. Special Presentations in this collection such as “Historical Insights” and “Precedents and Notable Events” provide additional information concerning ceremonial traditions and inaugural artifacts.

1. America at War

The threat of military conflict, its actualization, and its aftermath are reflected in a number of speeches in this collection. The addresses of James Madison and Abraham Lincoln demonstrate changes in rhetoric as America moved from the brink of war into full-scale combat in both the War of 1812 and in the Civil War. The emphasis on maintaining peace in both men's first inaugural addresses (Madison in 1809 and Lincoln in 1861) is contrasted by their discussions of the causes of the conflicts and calls for resolution in their second addresses (Madison in 1813, Lincoln in 1865).

In the wake of World War I, Herbert Hoover's 1929 inaugural address noted the “virility and strength” of the nation, while Franklin Roosevelt's inaugural addresses in the midst of World War II (1941 and 1945) described the external disruption to the nation, calling the war “a test of our courage--of our resolve--of our wisdom--our essential democracy.” This idea of war as a test of personal resolve was reintroduced in light of the conflict in Vietnam during Richard Nixon's 1969 inaugural address:

We are caught in war, wanting peace. We are torn by division, wanting unity. . . .

To a crisis of the spirit, we need an answer of the spirit.

To find that answer, we need only look within ourselves.

  • How do the presidents describe these military conflicts?
  • How do the events surrounding each war contribute to a president's account and the public's understanding of the conflict?
  • How does a president call upon the public to respond to a war?
  • Do these presidents discuss any of the dangers associated with the wars? How is this topic approached?
  • Do they mention any potential benefits to military force? Why or why not?


2. The Cold War

Inauguration of Harry S. Truman

Inauguration of Harry S. Truman, Washington, DC, 1949.

The ideological and military struggles between the United States and the Soviet Union are reflected in the inaugural addresses from the second half of the twentieth century. From Harry Truman's definition of communism in his 1949 inaugural address as “a false philosophy [threatening] material well-being, human dignity, and the right to believe in and worship God” to Ronald Reagan's call for a nuclear missile defense system to protect against Soviet aggression in his 1985 inaugural address, the threat of communism was a familiar feature of presidential policies.

  • How does each president describe communism?
  • Are there any common images and ideas?
  • Does the description of communism change over time? How?

3. Economic Policies

The reduction of taxes and the national debt have been familiar presidential platforms since Thomas Jefferson discussed them in his 1805 inaugural address: “The suppression of unnecessary offices, of useless establishments and expenses, enabled us to discontinue our internal taxes.”

In eras of both prosperity and recession, the economic outlook for the nation has been a familiar part of the inaugural address. For example, James Buchanan expressed dismay at America's wealth in his 1857 inaugural address:

No nation has ever before been embarrassed from too large a surplus in its treasury. This almost necessarily gives birth to extravagant legislation. . . . The purity of official agents . . . is suspected, and the character of the government suffers in the estimation of the people. This is in itself a very great evil

President Grant Taking the Oath of Office

President Grant Taking the Oath of Office,
Washington, DC, March 4, 1873."

A little over a decade later, Ulysses S. Grant faced the problems of growing debt and inflation in the wake of the Civil War. In his 1869 inaugural address, Grant proposed to redeem the inflated paper money of the war with gold “[t]o protect the national honor.” In his 1873 inaugural address, Grant emphasized the amount of time he had dedicated to economic concerns during his first term: “[T]he past four years, so far as I could control events, have been consumed in the effort to restore harmony, public credit, commerce, and all the arts of peace and progress.”

America's economy was booming during Calvin Coolidge's 1925 inaugural address but he also called for economic reform via tax reduction: “The method of raising revenue ought not to impede the transaction of business. . . . We can not finance the country . . . through any system of injustice, even if we attempt to inflict it upon the rich.” Ronald Reagan echoed this belief in a chillier economic climate in his 1985 inaugural address when he called for freezing government spending and proclaimed, “We must act now to protect future generations from Government's desire to spend its citizens' money and tax them into servitude when the bills come due."

  • How do the presidents' economic policies reflect the economic climate of the time? Using information from the inaugural speeches, create a timeline depicting changes in economic policy.
  • What kinds of arguments do these presidents make to support their economic policies?
  • Why are tax reductions and public debt such popular subjects?
  • Who benefits from a tax reduction?
  • How does Calvin Coolidge's argument about tax reduction differ from Ronald Reagan's claim?


4. Inaugural Ceremonies and Tradition

The oath of office is the only Constitutional requirement when swearing in a new president, but it's just one aspect of the inaugural tradition. The delivery of an inaugural address, the use of a Bible during the oath, and an inaugural ball are just some of the traditions dating back to George Washington's first inauguration in 1789. Marvin Kranz, a historical specialist at the Library of Congress, describes the precedents Washington set for future presidents in a RealVideo clip that is part of the Special Presentation, “Historical Insights.”

A history of inaugural balls is provided in the 1933 essay, “Inaugural Balls of the Past.” This article from Franklin Roosevelt's first inaugural program describes the inaugural ball as “one touch of royalty among all our republican institutions” and briefly chronicles historic moments, from the dance celebrating Washington's inauguration to Mrs. Woodrow Wilson's cancellation of the ball in 1913 with the exclamation, “I cannot bear to think of a ball, with modern dances, when Woodrow is inaugurated.” Photographs from different inaugural balls are available by selecting Balls (Parties) in the Subject Index. Additional souvenir programs from 1881, 1885, and 1889 are available by selecting Programme in the Subject Index.

Warren Harding had reservations about the inaugural ceremonies. A search on Edward McLean results in a January 12, 1921 telegram and letter dismissing the committee that planned these events. In the letter, Harding wrote:

[T]he impression of extravagant expenditure . . . would make me a very unhappy participant. I know full well that the government outlay is relatively small . . . but it is timely and wholesome to practice the utter denial of public expenditure where there is no real necessity. . .

In Harding's inaugural address (which was followed with a very small parade), he discussed the nation's economic outlook:

We can reduce the abnormal expenditures, and we will. . . . We contemplate the immediate task of putting our public household in order. We need a rigid and yet sane economy, combined with fiscal justice, and it must be attended by individual prudence and thrift, which are so essential to this trying hour and reassuring for the future.

  • How do the inaugural ceremony and traditions reflect the democratic nature of the United States?
  • To what extent might they reflect the disposition of one man, George Washington?
  • What is the value of adding “a touch of royalty” to the proceedings of a republic?
  • Do inaugural balls provide this “touch of royalty”? Explain. Who attends an inaugural ball?
  • How does Warren Harding's cancellation of inaugural ceremonies relate to his discussion of “abnormal expenditures”?
  • Did Harding's sparse inauguration set a tone for his presidency?
  • Do you think that he was right in dismissing the inaugural committee?


5. Westward Expansion

The United States grew dramatically during the nineteenth century. This expansion was featured in a number of inaugural addresses ranging from Thomas Jefferson's defense of the Louisiana Purchase in his 1805 address to Benjamin Harrison's discussion of the “near prospect of the admission into the Union of the Dakotas and Montana and Washington Territories” in his 1889 speech.

James Polk's 1845 inaugural address describes the merits of reclaiming Texas and describes the United States' “clear and unquestionable” title to Oregon before reflecting upon the growth of the nation:

[E]ighty years ago our population was confined on the west by the ridge of the Alleghenies. Within that period . . . our people . . . have filled the eastern valley of the Mississippi, adventurously ascended the Missouri to its headsprings, and are already engaged in establishing the blessings of self-government in valleys of which the rivers flow to the Pacific. The world beholds the peaceful triumphs of the industry of our emigrants. To us belongs the duty of protecting them adequately wherever they may be upon our soil.

A search on 1845 letter yields correspondence to President Polk commending him on his speech. For example, J. Huddleson's letter describes attending the ceremony with his family and proclaimed the speech “the best 'Inaugural Address' (in my humble opinion) that I ever heard or read. I never before felt such an abiding confidence, nor such a perfect unity of my hopes and anticipations, in regard to the coming administration.”

  • Who does Polk's address appeal to? Why?
  • How does his explanation of the nation's growth compare to Jefferson's claim that “[t]he larger our association, the less will it be shaken by local passions”?
  • Were all of the land claims that expanded the United States “peaceful triumphs . . . of emigrants”?
  • Why does Polk express concern in a March 5, 1849 diary entry when he learns that his successor, Zachary Taylor, believes that Arizona and California should remain independent?
  • How do Jefferson, Harrison, and Polk's inaugural speeches relate to the notion of Manifest Destiny, i.e. the United States had a divine right to become a transcontinental nation?
  • What role might such speeches have played in the westward expansion of the United States?
  • What do these speeches indicate about the specific events and concerns, as well as the motivations and vindications behind the nation's growth at different periods in its history?


Critical Thinking

"I Do Solemnly Swear . . .": Presidential Inaugurations, reflects United States history in the first official actions of each president, and is an excellent resource for making chronological comparisons. The war of 1812 and the effect of the media on inaugurations can be studied through analysis of letters, speeches, illustrations, photographs, and other historical documents. Such primary sources also provide the opportunity to analyze the artistry and impact of Lincoln's speeches and to explore how presidents have dealt with controversy in their elections.

Chronological Thinking

Each inaugural ceremony serves as a reflection of the era in which it was held. Franklin D. Roosevelt described the inauguration as a renewal of dedication to an ever-changing America in his 1941 inaugural address:

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.

The collection presents inaugural addresses and images in chronological order in the collection's Inauguration Index , providing a starting point for understanding the historical context of an inauguration. What was “the task of the people” when the following presidents were first inaugurated?

Federal Hall, 1790

Front of Federal Hall, New York City, 1790.

In addition, the images in this collection reflect the changes in the location of inaugurations. A search on capitol provides illustrations and photographs of the different buildings that housed Congress over the years, including New York City's Federal Hall, the Capitol before it was burned by the British as shown in an 1814 illustration, and the new Capitol building at different stages of construction (for example, during James Buchanan's 1857 inauguration).

The search also retrieves evidence of the moving of the ceremony to the West Portico for Ronald Reagan's first inauguration. The Special Presentation, "Presidential Oaths of Office," also lists other locations where presidents have taken the inaugural oath.

  • Why does the inaugural ceremony typically occur at the Capitol building?
  • What does this location imply about the relationship between the legislative and executive branches of the federal government?
  • What changes in the nation do the changes in the location of inaugurations reflect?
  • Why has the event moved within and around the Capitol itself?


Historical Comprehension: The War of 1812

James Madison

President James Madison, Between 1809 and 1817.

The threat of a war with Great Britain was brewing for the first part of the nineteenth century. In addition to disputes over U.S. independence and Canadian provinces, war between the British and the French, from 1792 to 1814, further strained the relations between Great Britain and the United States. The British navy attempted to block goods from entering France, and between 1803 and 1812 attacked over a thousand American ships and imprisoned many of the captured crews. James Madison discussed America's neutrality at sea and the heightened tensions between the United States and Great Britain in his first inaugural address: “[I]t has been the true glory of the United States to cultivate peace by observing justice, and to entitle themselves to the respect of the nations at war by fulfilling their neutral obligations with the most scrupulous impartiality."

After arriving at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson wrote to his successor in a March 17, 1809 letter, expressing his concerns over a potential war with Europe: “If peace can be preserved, I hope I trust you will have a smooth administration. I know no government which would be so embarrassing in war as ours.”

  • What does Madison mean by fulfilling “neutral obligations with the most scrupulous impartiality”?
  • What might have caused Madison to view the United States' position in the conflict in terms of earning the respect of Great Britain and France?
  • Why might Jefferson have believed that the United States would be embarrassed in war? What does he mean by this?

In 1810, the United States imposed a trade ban with Great Britain, but British merchants refused to comply. The problems between the two nations grew over the next few years and on June 12, 1812, the U.S. declared war against Great Britain. James Madison discussed the reasons for the war during his 1813 inaugural address:

They have refused to consider as prisoners of war, and threatened to punish as traitors and deserters, persons emigrating without restraint to the United States . . . . To render the war short and its success sure, animated and systematic exertions alone are necessary, and the success of our arms now may long preserve our country from the necessity of another resort to them. . . .

  • Are Madison's reasons for going to war justified?
  • Why was it important to win this war with Great Britain?


Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Lincoln's Inaugural Addresses

Lincoln's First Inauguration in 1961

Inauguration of Mr. Lincoln, March 4, 1861.

After the Civil War, many southerners defended secession using arguments about the Constitution and the founding fathers. They reminded America that at the time of its ratification, the Constitution was thought to be an experimental agreement from which any state could withdraw at any time; that the Constitution was only ratified because of the guarantee of states' rights in the Bill of Rights, which had since been abused; and that the Constitution was always a tenuous compromise between the very different North and South. These southerners spoke of the founding fathers as one-time rebels who, like the Confederates, had defended their homes against invaders and fought for the rights of independence and freedom.

In Abraham Lincoln's 1861 inaugural address, the new Republican president stated:

I hold, that in contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, the Union of these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper, ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination. Continue to execute all the express provisions of our national Constitution, and the Union will endure forever—it being impossible to destroy it, except by some action not provided for in the instrument itself.

Lincoln pledged that he had no intention of interfering with slavery in the southern states and closed his speech by placing the threat of war in the hands of his audience:

You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. . . . 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.

  • How does Lincoln's view of the Constitution and the Union differ from that of the Confederates?
  • Is either viewpoint more accurate than the other? Is either correct?
  • What arguments does Lincoln make to support his viewpoint?
  • What arguments might Lincoln be responding to in his inaugural address?
  • What does Lincoln mean by the “mystic chords of memory” that unite the Union?
  • What is Lincoln referring to when he speaks of the “battlefield and patriot grave”?
  • What is the purpose of this rhetoric? How does it compare to the Confederate view of the founding fathers?
  • How does Lincoln propose to save the Union?
  • To what extent might Lincoln's speech and his attitude toward the Union throughout the war have influenced the way in which history was written, both about the Civil War and the meaning of the Constitution and the Union?
  • How might Lincoln's second inaugural address have influenced the way that we remember the Civil War?


Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making: Controversial Elections

In Benjamin Harrison's 1889 inaugural address, the public oath of the president is defined as a mutual covenant between the person being sworn in and the public:

The officer covenants to serve the whole body of the people by a faithful execution of the laws . . . nor the power of combinations shall be able to evade their just penalties or to wrest them from a beneficent public purpose to serve the ends of cruelty or selfishness.

When a president takes the oath of office under a cloud of controversy, the public may have difficulty taking part in this covenant. The House of Representatives awarded the presidency to John Quincy Adams in 1824 after no single candidate had enough electoral votes to win outright (including Andrew Jackson who earned fifteen more electoral votes than Adams). Adams addressed this conflict in his 1825 inaugural address: “Less possessed of your confidence in advance than any of my predecessors, I am deeply conscious of the prospect that I shall stand more and oftener in need of your indulgence.”

  • Who is Adams appealing to?
  • How does Adams portray himself through this statement?
  • Why does he frame his inauguration and presidency in terms of “indulgences”?

Although Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote (4,300,000 to 4,036,000) in the 1876 election, a Congressional Electoral Commission awarded Republican Rutherford Hayes the presidency after the validity of electoral votes in a few southern states was called into question. In his 1877 inaugural address, Hayes called for unity:

Rutherford B. Hayes Taking the Oath of Office, 1877

Rutherford B. Hayes Taking the Oath of Office, the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol, 1877.

The President . . . owes his election to office to the suffrage and zealous labors of a political party . . . but he should strive to be always mindful of the fact that he serves his party best who serves the country best.

The fact that two great political parties have in this way settled a dispute in regard to which good men differ as to the facts and the law no less than as to the proper course to be pursued . . . is an occasion for general rejoicing.


A search on Hayes results in accounts of the inauguration such as a March 6, 1877 letter from John Cochrane to Carl Schurz and James Garfield's March 5, 1877 diary entry detailing the transition of power from President Grant to Hayes. Garfield's diary notes, “There were many indications of relief and joy that no accident had occurred on the route for there were apprehensions of assassination.”

  • How does Hayes attempt to disarm the tensions and animosity caused by his controversial election?
  • Why does Hayes consider the settling of this dispute to be “an occasion for general rejoicing”?

During the 2000 presidential election, Democrat Al Gore won the Popular vote but the winner of the electoral vote was not declared for weeks because the vote count in Florida was contested. Eventually, The Supreme Court ended the dispute, and George W. Bush won the electoral vote in Florida and thus the presidency. In his 2001 inaugural address, Bush thanked Gore “for a contest conducted with spirit and ended with grace.” He later called for an end to political and personal differences: “Our unity, our union, is the serious work of leaders and citizens in every generation. And this is my solemn pledge: I will work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity.”

  • How did Bush and Hayes each attempt to handle the controversy surrounding his election? Compare the tone of each speech and compare Bush's pledge with Hayes's discussion of political parties.
  • Does the public view a president differently when an election is decided in opposition to the mandate of the popular vote?
  • What measures can a president take to counteract any negative attitudes toward his presidency?
  • Are Bush, Hayes, and Adams effective in addressing potential doubts and concerns?
  • Should they have said or done more? Why or why not?
  • Did their policies grow from the conciliatory statements made in their inaugural addresses?


Historical Research Capability

Andrew Jackson Taking the Oath of Office, 1829

Chief Justice John Marshall Administering the Oath of Office to Andrew Jackson, the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol, March 4, 1829.

The Special Presentation, “Precedents and Notable Events” provides details about each inauguration and offers a starting point for investigating how changes in the media affected inaugurations. A search on newspaper provides a number of nineteenth-century accounts of different inaugurals starting with the 1845 Illustrated London News article, “Inauguration of the American President”, describing James Polk's inauguration and including the account of how “Professor Morse brought out the Magnetic Telegraph to the platform . . . communicating results to Baltimore as fast as they transpired.”

A review of the collection's Subject Index provides an opportunity to observe the transition from paintings and illustrations to photographic prints when documenting these events. Early films of President McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt taking the oath of office are also available, as well as a number of images of the 1949 inaugural stand of Harry Truman (the first inauguration to be televised).

Images such as the 1881 illustration, The Death of President Garfield, the painting, Calvin Coolidge Taking the Oath of Office, and the 1963 photograph Johnson Taking Oath in Air Force One provide an opportunity to compare the use of three different media in depictions related to the death of a president and the swearing in of a successor.

  • How did technological advances change the way that inaugurations were depicted?
  • Did this change the way presidents are perceived by the American public?
  • Did it change the public's attitude toward inaugurations?
  • Did it change the meaning of the inauguration, itself? If so, how?
  • Another way to investigate the role of the media is to review images of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's four inaugurations in the Menu of Presidents. How is Roosevelt positioned in the photographs? Is it apparent that he had polio?
  • Why would the media have refrained from showing Roosevelt's use of a wheelchair? Would you expect the media to show such restraint today?


Arts & Humanities

"I Do Solemnly Swear . . .": Presidential Inaugurations, contains diaries, poems, and drafts of historic speeches that lend themselves to discussions of personal and formal accounts of historic events. These primary sources provide an opportunity to investigate subjectivity in personal narratives and public speeches as well as to develop an understanding of the role of the printed word as part of the inaugural ceremony itself.

Diaries and Memoirs

A search on diary yields the recollections of presidents, other politicians, and general citizens that provide the opportunity to examine how personal writings contribute to the documentation of inaugurations. For example, Pennsylvania Senator William Maclay's April 30, 1789 journal entry recalls George Washington's first inaugural address. Maclay describes the president as being “agitated and embarrassed more than ever he was by the leveled cannon or pointed musket.” Sarah Ridg's 1809 Diary describes life in Alexandria, Virginia, near the beginning of the nineteenth century and includes an account of James Madison's inauguration as well as a description of the Capitol building that was later destroyed by the British. A president's own personal writings are also available in President James Garfield's March 4, 1873 entry describing President Grant's inauguration and his March 3 and 4, 1881 entries, written as he prepared for his own inauguration.

Irwin H. Hoover worked as an usher at the White House for forty-two years. His March 4, 1913 memoir provides an opportunity to examine a personal writing style. Hoover recounted the last day of President Taft's administration from inside the White House, including such details as the replacement of one American flag with a new one, the departure of the Tafts, and concerns of White House employees about their status in Woodrow Wilson's incoming administration:

For four long months this time that was now so near at hand had been looked forward too, talked about and in a measure been dreaded. Still it was her and everyone must make the best of it. Employees who had been around the place for 12, 16, 18, 22 years and longer were no different from those who had been there but a few years and some only months.

  • How do these diary entries contribute to an understanding of the inaugurations they describe?
  • What does a diary convey that speeches, photographs, and newspaper articles do not?
  • How does the private nature of a diary affect the way that it is read? Why?
  • Would these writers have changed their styles or the content of these pieces if they had been going directly to a public audience? What would they have left out, rephrased, or added? Why?


Creative Writing

An illustration or photograph can serve as the basis for writing a diary entry, newspaper article, or short story describing a presidential inauguration. Choose a president, examine some of the primary sources in this collection, and imagine what it was like to attend a past inauguration.

  • Was George Washington as nervous as Pennsylvania Senator William Maclay describes in his April 30, 1789 journal entry recalling the first presidential inauguration?
  • How did it feel to stand out in the rain for forty-five minutes in 1841 as William Henry Harrison delivered the longest inaugural address in American history?
  • What was the prevailing mood in 1865 when Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address in the midst of the Civil War?

Inaugural Speeches and Speech Writing

This collection affords an excellent opportunity to examine the art of speech writing. A search on draft results in a number of drafts of inaugural addresses either written in the hand of the president, such as a draft of Jefferson's address from 1801, or containing their personal corrections, such as a draft of Taft's speech from 1909. These pieces illustrate how speeches are edited during the writing process until they are polished into the final versions presented to an audience.

How does being able to see corrections and changes add to an understanding of a speech? For example, when Taft discusses revising the Dingley Act, an 1897 tariff on imports, he adds the phrase “to labor and” on page five of his speech, when describing the benefits of an amendment:

This should secure an adequate revenue and adjust the duties in such a manner as to afford to labor and to all industries in this country, whether of the farm, mine or factory, protection by tariff equal to the difference between the cost of production abroad and the cost of production here. . . .

  • Why does Taft make a point of adding "to labor and" and distinguishing between “labor” and “industries”?
  • What does this addition indicate about Taft's concerns and his sense of audience?
  • Why does he include workers on farms and in mines and factories?


A February 28, 1873 diary entry of Hamilton Fish, President Grant's Secretary of State, identifies one of the goals of that year's inaugural speech. He briefly recalls Cabinet members' reactions to a rough draft of the inaugural, “Several suggestions are made to avoid debate of statement to limit it more to general statements. It will probably be reduced in length by the adoption of this suggestion.

  • Why would the president wish to avoid debate in his inaugural speech?
  • Who is the target audience of an inaugural speech?
  • Do you think that avoiding debate is a common goal for most speeches? For all inaugural speeches? Might there have been something about the historical context of Grant's speech that made it a particularly important goal for him?
  • In his 1909 inaugural address, William Taft said that the president's first speech was intended “to give a summary outline of the main policies of the new administration, so far as they can be anticipated.” What other goals are reflected in this collection's speeches?

Multiple drafts help to polish a speech into something that can communicate to and move people in a powerful way. Two inaugural addresses from the twentieth century contain two of the most famous presidential lines of all time. Franklin Roosevelt's 1933 inaugural address contains the memorable phrase, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In 1961, John Kennedy's inaugural address was celebrated for the sentiment, “ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.”

  • Why do you think these statements made such an impact at the time?
  • Are these statements still appealing and powerful? Why?
  • What does each phrase contribute to the speech as a whole? What role does it play? How does the rest of the speech contribute to the meaning of the celebrated phrase? Does the meaning of the phrase change when it is taken out of the context of the rest of the speech? If so, how?
  • Are Roosevelt and Kennedy's sentiments similar in nature?
  • What role did media (radio and television) play in transmitting and preserving these quotes?
  • Do these statements reinforce the policies of the president (as Taft suggested) or do they provide some other value to the speech?



Poetry is sometimes featured prominently in inaugural ceremonies. The poem, "Ode in Honor of the Inauguration of Buchanan and Breckenridge" from 1857 is based on the melody of the "Star Spangled Banner" and celebrates the new president:

Encircled with glory our Jackson retir'd,
Who led us in safety through war's dread commotion.
While the spirit that raised him another inspir'd,
To watch o'er our rights with equal devotion. Buchanan will preside,
His Countrymen's pride,
The Patriot, the Statesman, the Farmer well tried,
And thus shall the fourth day of March ever yield,
A harvest of glory in Liberty's field.

An Inaugural Poem" was printed on a press in a wagon during Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural parade. This piece dramatizes the Civil War and celebrates the Union:

No scowling traitors in this hour
Will dare to thwart the people's power;
No forsworn plotters can implore
That Freedom's temple may run o'er
With the heart's blood of him who won
The post twice filled by Washington.

  • How do these poems describe the presidents?
  • What do the imagery, language, and rhyme scheme add to the meaning and effect of each poem?
  • How do the imagery and language differ between the poem for Buchanan, who was inaugurated during a time of peace and prosperity, and the poem for Lincoln, who was inaugurated in the midst of the Civil War?
  • Why would a poem be based on the melody of the "Star Spangled Banner"?

Almost a century later, Robert Frost was asked to read a poem at John Kennedy's inauguration. Frost composed “Dedication” for the ceremony, but the glare from the snow-covered ground prohibited the poet from being able to read his text. Instead, he recited “The Gift Outright” from memory.

  • How does “Dedication” compare to “The Gift Outright”? What are the similarities and differences?
  • Is it important that a work is written specifically for the inauguration?
  • What is the goal and purpose of such a poem?
  • What does the reciting of a poem add to an inaugural ceremony? What is the value of having a poet participate in the ceremony?
  • Does the meaning of having a poet read at an inauguration change when the poet is unable to read his intended poem? Why or why not?
  • Examine the style of one of these poems (meter, rhyme, etc.) and write an imitation for the most recent inauguration.


Scriptural Passages

The Bible is a common feature of the inaugural oath but the passage that the book is open to differs for many presidents. This collection's Special Presentation, “Bibles and Scripture Passages,” lists the passages used by the various presidents when they took the oath of office. A review of some selections may provide insight into the subject matter and tone of a president's inaugural address and even into the presidency, itself.

For example, for Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, he selected Matthew 7:1 (“Judge not, that you may not be judged.”), Matthew 18:7 (“Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling blocks comes!”), and Revelations 16:7 (“And I heard the altar saying, Yea, O Lord God, the Almighty, true and righteous are thy judgments.”)

  • Why did Lincoln select passages that discuss judgment? What do these passages suggest about Lincoln's thoughts as he recommitted himself to the responsibilities of president in the midst of a civil war?
  • How do these selections relate to Lincoln's statement in his speech that both parties fighting in the Civil War “read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other”?
  • What role does this kind of use of Scriptural passages play in an inauguration ceremony? What is its value to the president? To the audience? To the ceremony?
  • Has there always been meaning behind the presidents' selections of biblical passages?
  • Why do some presidents keep the Bible closed?
  • Should a president have to select a passage? Why or why not?