“Let the Word Go Forth:” A President’s First Inaugural Address

Today’s post comes from Tom Putnam, Acting Director of the Office of Presidential Libraries.

The inauguration of a new President offers the nation an opportunity to witness not only the peaceful transfer of power but also the transformation of a person we’ve known for over a year as a candidate, and for two months as President-elect, into the President of the United States of America.

For that reason the first inaugural address is an exceptionally important speech. Each new President hopes to use his first words as President to capture the moment, chart a new course, and galvanize the country.

Some iconic quotes, of course, ring through the ages and most Americans can complete the quote when hearing just the first few words.

“The only thing we have to fear….” or “Ask not what your country can do for you….”

As the nation prepares for the inauguration of our 45th president, we have assembled a number of signature quotes from the first inaugural address of our last 14 Presidents (whose papers are all housed in within the Presidential Library system administered by the National Archives and Records Administration).

This was not a scientific selection nor do we mean to imply that these are the most important quotes in each President’s speech. They are simply quotes that struck us as noteworthy as we recently read through these addresses.

“The influence and high purposes of our Nation are respected among the peoples of the world. We aspire to distinction in the world, but to a distinction based upon confidence in our sense of justice as well as our accomplishments within our own borders and in our own lives.”

Herbert Hoover, March 4, 1929

Herbert Hoover delivering his Inaugural Address at the U.S. Capitol. March 24, 1929. From the Hoover Presidential Library

“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”

Franklin D. Roosevelt, March 4, 1933

Reading copy of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first Inaugural Address, page one. From the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library

“The first half of this century has been marked by unprecedented and brutal attacks on the rights of man, and by the two most frightful wars in history. The supreme need of our time is for men to learn to live together in peace and harmony.”

Harry S. Truman, January 20, 1949

Bible used by Harry S. Truman at his 1945 and 1949 swearing-in ceremonies. From the Truman Presidential Library

“Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in this world must first come to pass in the heart of America.”

– Dwight D. Eisenhower, January 20, 1953

Reading copy (page 32) of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first Inaugural Address, delivered on January 20, 1953. From the Eisenhower Presidential Library

“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.”

– John F. Kennedy, January 20, 1961

John F. Kennedy delivers his Inaugural Address during ceremonies at the Capitol on January 20, 1961. From the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

“Justice requires us to remember that when any citizen denies his fellow, saying, ‘His color is not mine,’ or ‘His beliefs are strange and different,’ in that moment he betrays America, though his forebears created this nation.”

– Lyndon B. Johnson, January 20, 1965

“The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker. This honor now beckons America — the chance to help lead the world at last out of the valley of turmoil and onto that high ground of peace that man has dreamed of since the dawn of civilization.”

– Richard M. Nixon, January 20, 1969

“I believe that truth is the glue that holds government together, not only our government but civilization itself.”

– Gerald R. Ford, address after taking the oath of office on August 9, 1974

“To be true to ourselves, we must be true to others. We will not behave in foreign places so as to violate our rules and standards here at home, for we know that the trust which our Nation earns is essential to our strength.”

 – Jimmy Carter, January 20, 1977

Jimmy, Rosalynn, and Amy Carter walk hand-in-hand on the Inaugural Parade route from the Capitol to the White House on January 20, 1977. Jimmy Carter began the tradition of exiting the Presidential car and walking in the parade: no other President had ever done so before. From the Carter Presidential Library

“In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

– Ronald Reagan, January 20, 1981

Ronald Reagan delivering the Inaugural Address from the Capitol on January 20, 1981. From the Reagan Presidential Library

“America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world.”

– George H. W. Bush, January 20, 1989

George Bush takes the oath of office administered by Chief Justice William Rehnquist on January 20, 1989. From the Bush Presidential Library

“There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”

– Bill Clinton, January  20, 1993

“Through much of the last century, America’s faith in freedom and democracy was a rock in a raging sea. Now it is a seed upon the wind, taking root in many nations.”

– George W. Bush, January 20, 2001

George W. Bush is sworn-in at the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2001. From the George W. Bush Presidential Library

“Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

– Barack Obama, January 20, 2009

2009 Armed Forces Inaugural Committee
Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, and daughters Malia and Sasha wave to the crowd after the inaugural address on January 20, 2009. Photo courtesy of Department of Defense

Do you have a favorite quote from a President’s first inaugural address?  Why do you think those particular words speak so profoundly to you?

If you have a favorite quote from a President’s first inaugural we hope you will share it in our comment section.

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