“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” ~ Presidential oath of office, Article II, Section 1, U.S. Constitution
Some of the greatest and most noteworthy inaugural addresses in American history have come from the pens of our presidents.
Not that every word or syllable was smooth, iambic prose. In fact, some of our earliest and greatest presidents wrote speeches in such flowery verbiage that the true meaning of their words was missed — writing in ultra-long sentences a reader sometimes had to read and re-read many times just to gauge its meaning.
Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson fall into this category. They wrote speeches during a time when flowing prose talked all the way around a direct meaning. For directness, you must move along a number of years and presidents.
But, such was American speech in its day, when inaugural addresses were long and people had nothing else to do but stand and listen to presidents orate.
President Washington set the bar for all future presidents, when he gave the first inaugural address, even though it was not mandated in the Constitution — as is the oath of office.
General George also set the precedent for presidents to kiss the Holy Bible upon taking that oath.
On April 30, 1789, in front of New York’s Federal Hall, our nation’s first president took the oath of office before a cheering crowd on a balcony overlooking Wall Street.
The longest and perhaps dullest inaugural address — and shortest presidency — is attributed to President William Henry Harrison, taking an hour and forty-five minutes to present. Speaking outside in a snowstorm, he contracted pneumonia and died a month later.
Yet, history records stirring words from some of our presidents upon taking office:
“Great is the stake placed in our hands; great is the responsibility which must rest upon the people of the United States. Let us realize the importance of the attitude in which we stand before the world. Let us exercise forbearance and firmness. Let us extricate our country from the dangers that surround it and learn wisdom from the lessons they inculcate.” ~ President Andrew Jackson, 1833
“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.” ~ President Abraham Lincoln, 1865
“Much has been given us, and much will rightfully be expected from us. We have duties to others and duties to ourselves; and we can shirk neither. We have become a great nation, forced by the fact of its greatness into relations with other nations of the earth, and we must behave as beseems a people with such responsibilities. … While ever careful to refrain from wrongdoing others, we must be no less insistent that we are not wronged ourselves. We wish peace, but we wish the peace of justice, the peace of righteousness.” ~ President Theodore Roosevelt, 1905
“This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” ~ President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933
“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you— ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” ~ President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 1961
“The orderly transfer of authority, as called for in the Constitution, routinely takes place as it has for almost two centuries, and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every-four-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.” ~ President Ronald Wilson Reagan, 1981
“In serving, we recognize a simple but powerful truth — we need each other. And we must care for one another. Today, we do more than celebrate America; we rededicate ourselves to the idea of America.” ~ President William Jefferson Clinton, 1993
On Monday, at the 57th inaugural address, President Barack Obama will put his hand on the Bibles of Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and follow historical precedent handed down from this nation’s very founding.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at enidnews.com/historicallyspeaking.