An Examination of the History and Significance of Presidential Inaugurations

By Tom Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press, Harvard University

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself"

The tradition of the Inaugural Address began with George Washington, who apparently didn’t think it was worth much. When it came time for his second one, he wrote only 135 words—the shortest ever. If Washington had been a Twitter user, he could have dispatched it with ten tweets.

The text of George Washington’s First Inaugural Address. Image Source:

William Henry Harrison might have wished he’d followed Washington’s example. He spoke for nearly two hours, reading from a prepared text of 8,445 words. The day was cold and damp, and Harrison wore neither hat nor coat, which may have contributed to the onset of pneumonia – he died a month later. Harrison’s presidency began with the longest Inaugural Address on record and ended with the shortest tenure in office.

Allusions to the nation’s founding principles—liberty, equality, the popular will—have been a staple of inaugural addresses. Americans are bound, not by a common ancestry, but by allegiance to their nation’s time-honored ideals. Incoming presidents have invoked them as a means of linking themselves to what Americans cherish. As the linguist S.I. Hayakawa noted, their use is designed to make Americans “feel even more American.”

The 1953 Inauguration of Dwight Eisenhower on the East Front of the U.S. Capitol. Inaugurations were held on the East Front until being moved to the West Front in 1980. Image Source: National Archives and Records Administration

High-sounding words are not a guarantee of a memorable speech. Only a handful of inaugural addresses have held the public’s interest for a lengthy period. Thomas Jefferson’s 1801 Address—“We are all Republicans, We are all Federalists”—was the first to do so. Abraham Lincoln’s 1865 Address—“With malice toward none”—and Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 Address—“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”—also lingered in Americans’ minds. Among more recent speeches, only John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Address—“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” and Ronald Reagan’s 1981 Address—“Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem”—are widely quoted.

Inaugural addresses reflect the tenor of their time. Early presidents felt obliged to address their view of the presidency. Having rebelled against a king, Americans wanted assurances that the newly elected president wouldn’t act like one. “I tread new ground,” said George Washington. Even Ulysses S. Grant, upon taking office in 1869, saw fit to acknowledge the limits of his power. “It will be my endeavor,” said Grant, “to execute all laws in good faith, to collect all revenues assessed and to have them properly accounted and economically disbursed.”

No president of the past century has voiced words even remotely like Grant’s. As the power of presidents increased in response to domestic and international change, incoming presidents began to talk boldly, initially by listing their policy proposals. Said William Howard Taft in 1909, “The [purpose] of an inaugural address is to give a summary outline of the main policies of the new administration.”

Photograph of Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House in Washington, D.C., delivering a national radio address. Image Source: National Archives and Records Administration

Presidents gradually came to use the State of the Union Address as the time to spell out policy details, with the Inaugural Address serving as a vehicle for large themes. During the Cold War, the prevailing theme was the need to turn back the communist threat. Said Dwight Eisenhower in 1953, “We view our Nation’s strength as a trust upon which rests the hope of free men everywhere.” More recently, competing visions of government have played out. Rebutting Reagan’s claim that “government is the problem,” Barack Obama in 2009 said, “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.”

Early presidents wrote their addresses for a reading audience. It made little sense to craft it for those at the Inaugural in that most of them were beyond earshot of the president. Copies of the speech were given to newspaper editors to print and distribute to their readers. That practice changed when radio enabled the incoming president to talk directly to a live audience. Speeches came to be written for the ear rather than the eye. One result, as research has found, was a shortening of the sentences. Today, they average only half the length that they did in the nineteenth century.

Protests are an Inaugural tradition nearly as old as the tradition of an Inaugural Address. Shown here is a poster depicting the women’s suffrage protest that accompanied Woodrow Wilson’s First Inauguration in 1913, which was prompted by Wilson’s refusal to support voting rights for women. Image Source:

The ability to speak directly to a live audience also changed the use of pronouns. A change in usage—replacing “I” with “We”—enabled incoming presidents to foster the impression that the listeners were participants in the inauguration process. Grant’s 1869 Address employed “I” nineteen times, compared with five uses of “we.” Obama’s 2009 Address used “I” only three times while “we” was heard sixty-one times.

The use of “we” also enabled incoming presidents to implore Americans to unite behind their leadership. But unity is rarely achieved through words alone, and inaugural addresses are no exception. Protestors opposed to Donald Trump’s Inauguration are upholding a long tradition of their own, one that began as soon as Washington stepped down as president. As John Adams was being sworn in as Washington’s successor, Jefferson’s supporters were in the streets voicing their opposition.

About Tom Patterson

Thomas E. Patterson is Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. His books include Informing the News, Out of Order (which received the American Political Science Association’s Graber Award as the best book of the decade in political communication), and The Unseeing Eye (named by the American Association for Public Opinion Research as one of the 50 most influential books on public opinion in the past half century). He is also the author of an introductory American Government text published by McGraw-Hill Education, We the People, now in its 12th edition. His research has been funded by the Ford, Markle, Smith-Richardson, Pew, Knight, Carnegie, and National Science foundations. Patterson received his PhD from the University of Minnesota, which he attended after returning from Vietnam, where he served in the U.S. Army Special Forces.