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Inaugural Oratory

The terse, the eloquent, the long-winded

by Borgna Brunner

Famous lines from inaugural addresses:

Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country."
John F. Kennedy
Inaugural Address (Jan. 20, 1961

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
First Inaugural Address (March 4, 1933)

"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."
Abraham Lincoln
Second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1865)

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The Terse

A mere 135 words long, George Washington's second inaugural address (March 4, 1793) was the shortest ever given by a U.S. president. Whereas Washington's first inaugural speech (April 30, 1789; 1,425 words) went on at some length expressing his awe and humility at being "summoned by my country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love," in his second address he opted for something no-nonsense and to the point, beginning with: "I am again called upon by the voice of my country to execute the functions of its Chief Magistrate."

The Eloquent

Other notably succinct inaugural speeches were given by Zachary Taylor (March 5, 1849; 995 words), and Abraham Lincoln, whose famous second inaugural (March 4, 1865; 698 words) is generally considered to be the finest of all inaugural addresses. Lincoln himself believed his second inaugural surpassed the quality of his other famously concise oration, the Gettysburg Address.

The Long-Winded

The longest inaugural speech was William Henry Harrison's. At 8,445 words, it is nearly twice the length of any other president's. The address, delivered in a snowstorm, lasted an hour and forty-five minutes. His grandson, President Benjamin Harrison, gave the fourth most prolix inaugural speech, clocking in at 4,388 words, and surpassed only by the verbosity of William Howard Taft (5,433 words) and James Monroe (4,467).

All Talk and No Action

Ironically, while Harrison delivered the longest inaugural speech ever, he was president for the shortest time—a mere month. Historian Marc Kruman, in The Reader's Companion to the American Presidency, summed up Harrison's tenure as follows: "He took the oath of office, delivered a lengthy and tedious inaugural address, appointed many men to office, called a special session of Congress, became ill—and abruptly died."

The Memorable

According to presidential historian Robert Dallek, few inaugural speeches have been memorable—the overwhelming majority have been dull affairs. In fact, Dallek considers only four to have been particularly fine pieces of oratory, resonating passion and substance: Jefferson's first inaugural, Lincoln's second, FDR's first, and Kennedy's only inaugural address.





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