Peter Spiegel, US managing editor
Joe Biden’s swearing-in has taken on a significance that outstrips most previous presidential inaugurations, which tend to be highly ceremonial affairs filled with pomp and symbolism but thin on substance. Indeed, many are remembered for their symbolism alone, like Jimmy Carter’s in 1977, which is recalled by historians for the new president’s decision to forgo a motorcade during the inaugural parade and walk down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House from his swearing-in at the Capitol.
There are a handful of inaugurals credited with setting a new course for the nation, starting from the first by George Washington in 1789, where the president delivered an address ghostwritten by fellow Virginian James Madison and delivered in lower Manhattan near Wall Street. Madison, who helped orchestrate the constitutional convention that established the new federal government, had become Washington’s chief political adviser and is widely credited with coming up with the idea of an inaugural address, given by a humbly-dressed Washington, who observers said was trembling with nervousness. The tradition was set.
Here is a subjective list of the US’s most important inaugural addresses:
‘With malice towards none; with charity for all’: Lincoln’s second inaugural, 1865. The US Civil War was nearing its end, and the recently re-elected president would be dead of an assassin’s bullet just six weeks later, making Abraham Lincoln’s call for a peaceful national reconciliation, and his clear attempt to avoid any sense of triumphalism, all that more poignant.
‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’: FDR’s first inaugural, 1933. Like Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt was sworn in during a period of national crisis, this one economic rather than military. FDR sought to rally a wounded nation with solemnity, but one that was at odds with his trademark optimism. He reminded the country it was suffering from a lack of “only material things” and that its spirit remained intact — a spirit that would be necessary to overcome the Great Depression.
‘The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans’: Kennedy’s inaugural, 1961. John Kennedy’s inaugural address marked a generational change from leaders born in the 19th century to those from the 20th. It is also one of America’s great political speeches, including the vow to “pay any price, bear any burden” in defence of democracies abroad, and its call for Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
‘Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem’: Reagan’s first inaugural, 1981. The former film star’s arrival in Washington is mostly remembered for its change in tone and style. Gone was the down-to-earth populism of the Carter era; in its place the Hollywood glamour of Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Stewart, both of whom were in attendance. Reagan’s line set out his political philosophy would set the tone for the eight years to come.
‘We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists’: Jefferson’s first inaugural, 1801. Those who maintain that elections of the past were a gentlemanly affair compared to the modern day need only to look at John Adams’ re-election fight in 1800. The incumbent was accused of being a war-mongering autocrat by allies of challenger Thomas Jefferson, who was branded an atheistic libertine by Adams partisans. Adams was so embittered that, like Mr Trump, he skipped the inauguration of his one-time friend. Jefferson used his address to offer his famous call for partisan healing.
Honourable mention: ‘This American carnage stops right here and stops right now’, Trump’s inaugural, 2017. From such a short distance, it’s hard to judge where Donald Trump’s address will fit into history. But it raised eyebrows at the time, with former President George W. Bush reportedly leaning over to Mr Trump’s defeated rival Hillary Clinton to offer this assessment: “Well, that was some weird shit.”