In his 1805 Inaugural address, Jefferson celebrated the expansion of the country as a means of preserving and protecting the American Nation. “The larger our association, the less will it be shaken by local passions,” he reasoned; “and in any view, is it not better that the opposite bank of the Mississippi should be settled by our own brethren and children, than by strangers of another family?”
Two centuries ago, in 1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition sighted the Pacific Ocean, reaching the end of its mission to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Territory. Two years earlier, the Senate had approved the treaty purchasing the territory from France, which doubled the size of the United States. President Thomas Jefferson then sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on a mission to explore the new territory, both as a scientific venture and to consider its commercial possibilities. In his 1805 inaugural address, Jefferson celebrated the expansion of the country as a means of preserving and protecting the American Nation. “The larger our association, the less will it be shaken by local passions,” he reasoned; “and in any view, is it not better that the opposite bank of the Mississippi should be settled by our own brethren and children, than by strangers of another family?”
A century later, in 1905, Theodore Roosevelt delivered his Presidential inaugural address on the steps of the United States Capitol. Although born and raised in New York City, Roosevelt had gone west to operate a ranch in the Dakota Badlands and live the life of a cowboy. His love of the Nation’s vast wilderness led to his support for better conservation practices through national forests, national parks, and federal wildlife preserves. “We’re not building this country of ours for a day,” Roosevelt declared when he visited Yosemite Valley in 1903, “It is to last through the ages.”
In his Inaugural address, Roosevelt declared that no people on earth had more cause to be thankful than Americans, but he added that the rapid expansion of American industry in his era that accounted for “our marvelous material well-being” had also caused much social anxiety. “There is no good reason why we should fear the future,” he reassured Americans, “but there is every reason why we should face it seriously, neither hiding from ourselves the gravity of the problems before us nor fearing to approach these problems with the unbending, unflinching purpose to solve them aright.” His Inauguration served to highlight an administration that would vigorously pursue the conservation of natural resources and a more prominent role for the United States in international affairs.
The Constitution does not require Presidents to deliver an Inaugural address after they take the oath of office, and yet, like Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt, all elected Presidents have used the occasion to address the Nation, and to offer a vision of America.
The Nation’s first president, George Washington, fully conscious of the need to rally the American people behind the fledgling federal government, set the precedent by delivering an address immediately following his first Inauguration. On April 30, 1789, after taking his oath of office on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City, Washington placed his hand over his heart and bowed to the cheering throng below. Then he stepped from the balcony back into the Senate chamber where members of Congress gathered.
Indoors, Washington pledged that the “preeminence of free government” would be “exemplified by all the attributes which can win the affections of its citizens and command the respect of the world,” and reminded his audience that the “preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government” were “staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”
Four years later, at the start of his second term, Washington spoke in the Senate chamber of Congress Hall, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where the federal government was temporarily based. There he delivered an even briefer speech—a mere 135 words—the shortest of all Inaugural addresses.
By 1800 the federal government had moved to its permanent seat in the newly created District of Columbia. The election that year produced the first change in the party that controlled the Presidency, from the Federalists to the Democratic-Republicans, but had produced a tie vote in the electoral college between Democratic-Republicans Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. This threw the decision into the House of Representatives, where it took thirty-six ballots for the House to elect Jefferson President. On March 4, 1801, in the Senate chamber of the original U.S. Capitol Building, Jefferson took his oath.
Although Thomas Jefferson disliked public speaking, he continued the tradition of delivering an inaugural address. After the divisive election, he offered a message of national unity and put aside partisan animosity. Despite their political divisions, Jefferson insisted, Americans were not that far apart in their thinking. “But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
In the aftermath of the War of 1812, when British troops invaded Washington, D.C., and set the Capitol ablaze, the 1817 Presidential Inauguration took place outdoors on the steps of the temporary “Brick Capitol,” the site of the present-day Supreme Court Building. James Monroe, the last of the Revolutionary War generation to hold the Presidency, hailed the Nation’s survival and pledged to defend and to improve it. Monroe offered a vision of a network of roads and canals that would unite the regions of America. “Peace is the best time for improvement and preparation of every kind,” he declared; “it is in peace that our commerce flourishes most, that taxes are most easily paid, and that the revenue is most productive.”
The next two Inaugurations occurred in the newly rebuilt Capitol, inside the chamber of the House of Representatives. Andrew Jackson took his oath in 1829 on the east front steps of the Capitol, to accommodate the vast crowds of citizens who had gathered in support of the “people’s President.” Although he spoke in a low voice inaudible to most of the crowd, Jackson promised them an administration that would reform the Nation’s government and finances, and vowed to appoint to office only those “whose diligence and talents will insure in their respective stations able and faithful cooperation…”
Jackson’s Inauguration set the tradition for speaking from the east front of the Capitol. It was there in 1865 that Abraham Lincoln delivered one of the most eloquent Inaugural addresses when he looked forward to reuniting the nation once the Civil War had ended. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in,” Lincoln concluded, “to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
At the dawn of the twentieth century, William McKinley used his second Inauguration in 1901 to encourage Americans to assume greater responsibilities in world affairs. Rated a “magnetic speaker” with a “clear, bell-like voice,” McKinley asserted that “The American people, intrenched in freedom at home, [would] take their love for it with them wherever they go,” and that American institutions would not “deteriorate by extension.” Another magnetic speaker, Woodrow Wilson took his second oath of office on the eve of American entry into the First World War in 1917. “We are provincials no longer,” said Wilson. “There can be no turning back. Our own fortunes as a nation are involved whether we would have it so or not.”
After a decade of prosperity, the stock market crash of 1929 and the depression that followed weighed heavily on the Nation. In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt used his Inaugural address to reassure the Nation that it would “endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.” Asserting that “Our greatest primary task is to put people to work,” Roosevelt pledged that the government would treat the unemployment crisis “as we would treat the emergency of a war.”
The only President inaugurated four times, Franklin Roosevelt took the oath of office for the last time in 1945, near the end of the Second World War. In a simple ceremony held at the White House, he pledged to work for a just and honorable peace. But he reminded Americans, “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.”
No sooner had the Second World War ended than the United States and its Western allies were confronted with a protracted Cold War with the Soviet Union. The need to stand firm in this struggle became a repeated theme of Presidential Inaugurals. “Events have brought our American democracy to new influence and new responsibilities,” said Harry S. Truman in the first televised Inauguration in 1949. “They will test our courage, our devotion to duty, and our concept of liberty.” Four years later, in 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower declared, “We wish our friends the world over to know this above all: we face the threat–not with dread and confusion–but with confidence and conviction.” In 1961, John F. Kennedy pledged to begin anew, “remembering on both sides 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.”
On January 20, 1981, for the first time, the Inauguration was held on the west front of the U.S. Capitol, to accommodate larger crowds. “Standing here, one faces a magnificent vista,” said Ronald Reagan, “opening up on this city’s special beauty and history. At the end of this open mall are those shrines to the giants on whose shoulders we stand.” And beyond those imposing monuments are the rows of simple white markers at Arlington National Cemetery, “only a tiny fraction of the price that has been paid for our freedom.” Reagan reminded potential adversaries “that peace is the highest aspiration of the American people. We will negotiate for it, sacrifice for it; we will not surrender for it—now or ever.”
Each President’s Inaugural address has offered his vision of America. Following in the tradition of Lewis and Clark and Theodore Roosevelt, the 2005 Inauguration commemorates two centuries of American exploration, development, and conservation of our nation’s ample resources and scenic beauty, and looks ahead to a new century of scientific expeditions and research that will span the globe, probe far into space, and continue the wise stewardship of America’s natural resources.