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What makes a great inaugural address?

What makes a great inaugural address?
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Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. was no fan of the Inaugural Address. Formulaic and constrained, he concluded in 1965, “The platitude quotient tends to be high, the rhetoric stately and self-serving, the ritual obsessive, and the surprises few.”

Schlesinger’s criticisms about the address have their merit, yet he missed the larger point. Simply because a presidential inaugural address is steeped in tradition doesn’t mean that it is irrelevant.

In fact, quite the opposite. Inaugural addresses are a type of rhetoric the ancient philosopher Aristotle called “epideictic.” This type of speech is best suited for ceremonial occasions. Consequently, it focuses on values and beliefs, and can be described as contemplative in nature.

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In other words, inaugural addresses should describe the new president’s vision for the country, the governing philosophy for the next four years, and the main principles and priorities that will guide the administration.

What were the ‘best’ inaugural addresses?

There have been a handful of inaugural addresses throughout the course of American history that have been considered as exemplars of the genre. After consulting numerous media outlets and think tanks that rank the inaugural addresses over time, five speeches consistently appear at the top of various lists and commentaries.

They are: Thomas Jefferson (1801), Abraham Lincoln (1865), Franklin Roosevelt (1933), John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (1961), and Ronald Reagan (1981).

What makes these speeches exemplary?

It turns out there are several common characteristics shared by these speeches.

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First, and most importantly, each of these addresses articulates a single, unifying theme. There is a “bumper sticker” quality to them, which can be readily identified and articulated by those who have read or listened to the speech. The themes are also timeless, fusing the past and present.

For example, Jefferson tried to heal the nation after a bruising, controversial election that resulted in the first ideologically driven transfer of power in our young nation’s history. Roosevelt addressed the psychology of the economic depression and prepared the country for the decisive action that would follow. Reagan vowed to restore power to the American people and the States, take action to limit the size of the federal government, and improve its efficiency.

Second, due to the focused nature of these addresses, they are short. Each of the five “top” inaugural speeches clocks in under 2,500 words. Brevity is a proxy, indicating the speech has a specific and targeted point to make.

In Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address, he attempted to explain the larger causes of the Civil War and the resulting principles that would guide his vision for Reconstruction. Undoubtedly, he had the most complex task at hand; however, his speech was only 698 words. Perhaps the most often quoted inaugural in American history, Kennedy’s 1961 speech lasted a mere fourteen minutes, with its most memorable line appropriately spoken at the end, ensuring it would not be forgotten.

Lastly, the best inaugural addresses highlight the collective, unifying nature of democratic ideals. Oftentimes, this is demonstrated by the frequent use of the plural “we” rather than “I.” The more the speech involves the audience in its goals, the better.

For example, Reagan stated, “We must act today in order to preserve tomorrow.” Jefferson famously pronounced, “We are all republicans, we are all federalists.” Perhaps the most profound declaration in any inaugural address belongs to Abraham Lincoln, who argued that the guilt of the Civil War was collective in nature, born by the North and South alike. Yet the way forward advocated by Lincoln would unify the divided nation: “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”

A vital ritual

Even the inaugural addresses which do not rise to the paeans of oratory are critically important to the vitality of American self-governance. Yes, inaugurals can be formulaic. But there is no more critical and essential ritual in a constitutional democracy than the peaceful transfer of power.

The inaugural address symbolizes this transition, commemorates it, and prepares the citizenry for the next chapter. Given the considerable political and policy challenges ahead for the Biden administration, the forthcoming inaugural address on Jan. 20 will communicate priorities, values, and governing principles. Whether platitudes or memorable turns of phrase are included, all should heed the message contained therein.

Dr. Colleen J. Shogan is senior vice president of the White House Historical Association and director of the David Rubenstein National Center for White House History. She is author of "The Moral Rhetoric of American Presidents" and teaches American politics at Georgetown University. Follow her on Twitter @cshogan276