Skip to Content

Found 78,199 Resources

"You just became President of the United States. What would you like to do?" "I think I'll give a speech!"

National Museum of American History

On January 20, when he delivers the 58th inaugural address, Donald Trump will join a long line of orators inspired by George Washington. Taking the oath of office is the only constitutionally mandated event of the day, but every president has recognized that an inaugural address is an important part of the national celebration.

A red program for an inauguration with the statue of liberty and a golden star in the center

Presidents look to previous speakers for role models. Bill Clinton read Abraham Lincoln's second, Franklin Roosevelt's first, and John Kennedy's inaugurals; Donald Trump has said he is looking to the speeches of Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. But the collection of inaugural addresses is more than just a series of individual speeches. Rhetorical scholars Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson argue that each inaugural address is not simply one stage in the ritual of transition. It is also part of a genre which has aspects understood by both speakers and audiences. Knowing the characteristics of this genre identified by Campbell and Jamieson and exploring some examples can help listeners better understand these speeches in which presidents first demonstrate their worthiness for the job that started when they took the oath.

Unification of the Audience: Inaugurations serve as the transition point between the competition of a campaign and the needs of an administration beginning to govern. For the audience to properly fulfill their role as witnesses to this investiture of power, they must be unified and reconstituted as "we the people." Therefore, according to political scientist Lee Sigelman, these speeches are "literally brimming with verbal tokens of unity." There are references to our founders, our nation, and the future we face. Dwight Eisenhower spoke of the purposes "to which we, as a people, are pledged" (second inaugural) and Benjamin Harrison called his inaugural moment a "mutual covenant" between himself and the people. Thomas Jefferson in his first inaugural may have been the most explicit: "We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists."

A thin, cream colored book with the presidential seal in gold on the cover

Reaffirmation of national values: New presidents must also establish their qualifications for the office by demonstrating they understand and will preserve the communal values that are key to what Bill Clinton in his first inaugural called "the very idea of America." These traditional values are proclaimed in words like freedom, liberty, democracy, faith, courage, destiny, etc. Speakers honor the "venerated example" of previous presidents (James Monroe, first inaugural) by quoting from their inaugurals and promising to promote policies that build on the principles of the past.

A quilt that is a patchwork with a variety of colored diamonds and a border with zigzag pattern

Setting forth political principles: Unlike many other presidential addresses, most notably the State of the Union, the inaugural is not a speech intended to advocate specific legislation. Instead, inaugurals present the more general philosophies that will guide administrations. Particular policies are offered, not for action, but to demonstrate presidents' commitment to the democratic system. James Polk promoted his "plain and frugal" economic plans because a national debt "is incompatible with the ends for which our republican Government was instituted." Herbert Hoover said that the policies he listed would be tested against the "ideals and aspirations of America." Even William Howard Taft, whose inaugural was among the most policy specific, framed his ideas with respect to the "proper" role of the federal government "in what it can and ought to accomplish for its people."

A white ticket for the inauguration of "Governor Hayes"

Enacting the presidential role: Candidates give speeches that are highly partisan and self-promoting, but audiences have different expectations when the campaign ends and governing begins. Campbell and Jamieson note that new presidents must demonstrate they "can lead the nation within the constitutionally established limits of executive power." In his first inaugural, Franklin Roosevelt acknowledged the constraints on his "leadership of frankness and vigor" and pledged to rely on his "constitutional duty" to work with Congress. Campbell and Jamieson add that these speeches must also enact the "public, symbolic role of president of all the people" by revealing traits such as humility and reliance on a higher power. A typical example is Warren Harding's conclusion: "I accept my part with single-mindedness of purpose and humility of spirit, and implore the favor and guidance of God in His Heaven. With these I am unafraid, and confidently face the future."

A silk scarf in the color of aged paper with a very long speech printed on in tiny letters comprising 6 rows

Fulfilling ceremonial expectations: Because of the circumstances surrounding them, inaugural addresses carry the stylistic expectations of ceremonial speaking (what Aristotle called epideictic rhetoric). Such speeches strive to reach beyond the immediate situation to evoke timeless themes using memorable phrases. Kennedy's "ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country" challenges Americans across the decades. The closing of Lincoln's second inaugural, possibly the most eloquent section in inaugural history, is appropriate to the end of any conflict: "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, 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."

Three disposable coffee sleeves. They have red, white and blue stripes and each has text from the inauguration speech of a different president

Not all inaugural addresses achieve greatness—and some are, frankly, bad. But each of them to date has tried to do these five things audiences expect, thereby helping to sustain what FDR in his second inaugural called "our covenant with ourselves."

Claire Jerry is a curator in the Division of Political History. She has also blogged about a rousing speech by William Jennings Bryan. For further reading, the author recommends Presidents Creating the Presidency: Deeds Done in Words by Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson.

Posted Date: 
Friday, January 13, 2017 - 08:00
OSayCanYouSee?d=qj6IDK7rITs OSayCanYouSee?d=7Q72WNTAKBA OSayCanYouSee?i=MOAlNAD1C3g:g6GP0BWe1iU:V_sGLiPBpWU OSayCanYouSee?i=MOAlNAD1C3g:g6GP0BWe1iU:gIN9vFwOqvQ OSayCanYouSee?d=yIl2AUoC8zA

How Jazz, Flappers, European Émigrés, Booze and Cigarettes Transformed Design

Smithsonian Magazine
A new Cooper-Hewitt exhibition explores the Jazz Age as a catalyst in popular style

How New York City Is Rediscovering Its Maritime Spirit

Smithsonian Magazine
The city's waterfront fell into dangerous decline, but now its on the rebound with a new wave of money and creativity

Exploring the Ancient Region Where Jesus Rose to Prominence

Smithsonian Magazine
The Sea of Galilee contains the lowest freshwater lake in the world, and it's the area where a young Jesus of Nazareth first gained popularity

Fighting the Nazis With Fake News

Smithsonian Magazine
A new documentary rediscovers a World War II campaign that was stranger than nonfiction

Allied Troops Used These Massive Pipe Bombs at Omaha Beach

Smithsonian Magazine
World War II veteran John Raaen Jr. was there the day Allied troops stormed Omaha Beach at Normandy

How a Chinese Empress Built the Largest Palace in the World

Smithsonian Magazine
Seeking to consolidate her grip on the Chinese throne, Empress Wu Zetian embarked on an audacious project: expanding the imperial palace

From Plastics to 3-D Printing: Manufacturing a Consumer Culture

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
Using design objects from the current exhibition Energizing the Everyday: Gifts from the George R. Kravis II Collection and works from Cooper Hewitt’s collection, Curatorial Director Cara McCarty examines how scientific inquiry, technology, and our persistent fascination with manipulating materials—from plastics and aluminum to silicon chips and LCDs—have impacted modern industrial design, as well as...

Scrollwork and Squirrels

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
I love the contrast in this paper by Jacquemart et Bénard between the monochrome neoclassical ornament and the vibrantly-colored animals. This sidewall hovers on the border between the austere Empire style of the first decades of the 19th century and the mid-century taste for highly-detailed, brightly-colored designs. The overall layout of this paper, with its...

Where It’s At

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
“Where It’s At” is not only the title of this gloriously psychedelic wallpaper but also how someone in 1968 would have described the United De Soto wallpaper company in Chicago. A division of DeSoto Industrial Coverings, Inc., United De Soto stood out for its technical innovations, being the first American company to use fluorescent pigments...

Domestication as a model system for the extended evolutionary synthesis

Smithsonian Libraries
One of the challenges in evaluating arguments for extending the conceptual framework of evolutionary biology involves the identification of a tractable model system that allows for an assessment of the core assumptions of the extended evolutionary synthesis (EES). The domestication of plants and animals by humans provides one such case study opportunity. Here, I consider domestication as a model system for exploring major tenets of the EES. First I discuss the novel insights that niche construction theory (NCT, one of the pillars of the EES) provides into the domestication processes, particularly as they relate to five key areas: coevolution, evolvability, ecological inheritance, cooperation and the pace of evolutionary change. This discussion is next used to frame testable predictions about initial domestication of plants and animals that contrast with those grounded in standard evolutionary theory, demonstrating how these predictions might be tested in multiple regions where initial domestication took place. I then turn to a broader consideration of how domestication provides a model case study consideration of the different ways in which the core assumptions of the EES strengthen and expand our understanding of evolution, including reciprocal causation, developmental processes as drivers of evolutionary change, inclusive inheritance, and the tempo and rate of evolutionary change.

Tsunami-driven rafting: Transoceanic species dispersal and implications for marine biogeography

Smithsonian Libraries
The 2011 East Japan earthquake generated a massive tsunami that launched an extraordinary transoceanic biological rafting event with no known historical precedent. We document 289 living Japanese coastal marine species from 16 phyla transported over 6 years on objects that traveled thousands of kilometers across the Pacific Ocean to the shores of North America and Hawai'i. Most of this dispersal occurred on nonbiodegradable objects, resulting in the longest documented transoceanic survival and dispersal of coastal species by rafting. Expanding shoreline infrastructure has increased global sources of plastic materials available for biotic colonization and also interacts with climate change-induced storms of increasing severity to eject debris into the oceans. In turn, increased ocean rafting may intensify species invasions.
73-96 of 78,199 Resources