Past inaugural addresses show the way forward through times of crisis

Incoming presidents have used their words not only to chart a course but also to unite a nation in the most troubled periods of U.S. history.

Taking office in the middle of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is sworn as president on March 4, 1933.
Photograph by Hulton Archive, Getty Images

A president’s inaugural address has served many purposes in U.S. history. It has marked a peaceful transfer of power to a new administration. It has charted the vision for a way forward with optimism and joy.

Inaugural addresses can also serve more somber purposes. In times of conflict, newly elected presidents can reassure a nervous nation or offer consolation for its grief. They can rally the people against a common foe or heal the wounds inflicted by war.

When the 46th president of the United States, Joe Biden, takes office on January 20, 2021, he faces an unprecedented trio of crises: a pandemic, economic recession, and civil unrest, all of which have rocked the nation to its very core. The entire country will be listening when Biden delivers his inaugural remarks, and many are speculating as to what he’ll say. (Here are some of America’s most fraught presidential transitions.)

There’s little doubt that in drafting his address, Biden and his team have turned to past American presidents for guidance. These men were faced with different trials, yet all had the same task of addressing a reeling nation. These inaugural speeches not only marked the beginning of their terms but would also give hope to the people.

The First: April 30, 1789

Inaugural addresses are delivered after the president takes the oath of office. The tradition dates back to April 30, 1789, when George Washington addressed a joint session of Congress in the then capital of New York City. Like many things Washington did, his speech set an important precedent and generated a blueprint for future presidents.

When reading Washington’s first inaugural, some themes become apparent. His overwhelming gratitude and humility are obvious, as Washington repeatedly thanked his country while modestly questioning his qualifications. He asked for blessings: “It would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official Act, my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe … that his benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the People of the United States.”

Perhaps the most important is his call for national unity. Washington extolled his listeners to not let difference divide them: “[B]ehold the surest pledges, that as on one side, no local prejudices, or attachments; no separate views, nor party animosities, will misdirect the comprehensive and equal eye which ought to watch over this great assemblage…”

For the following presidents, speech after speech utilize different combinations of these Washingtonian touchstones—gratitude, humility, and unity—but those addresses given in times of great calamity call upon them more to guide the nation through deeply troubled times. (Discover five surprising facts about presidential inaugurations.)

Rallying: March 4, 1813

At his second inauguration in March 1813, James Madison, the United States’ first wartime president, had to make a case for continuing the conflict. The United States had been at war with Britain for nearly a year when Madison took office. What became known as the War of 1812 was unpopular with many factions, particularly in New England, who felt the president was leading them into, as one opponent put it, an “offensive and ruinous war.” Madison had to quiet these voices by rallying both Congress and the American people to his cause. Early in his address, he set a humble and grateful tone:

From the weight and magnitude now belonging to it I should be compelled to shrink if I had less reliance on the support of an enlightened and generous people, and felt less deeply a conviction that the war with a powerful nation … is stamped with that justice which invites the smiles of Heaven.

Madison then recognized the unity of the American people:

Our nation … is composed of a brave, a free, a virtuous, and an intelligent people … When the public voice called for war, all knew, and still know, that without them it could not be carried on through the period which it might last … the success of our arms now may long preserve our country from the necessity of another resort to them.

The rest of Madison’s address focused on the war itself, the wrongs perpetrated by Britain, and the courage of American armed forces. The war would continue for another year, and in December 1814, both sides signed a peace treaty ending the first major U.S. war.

Healing: March 4, 1865

The Civil War was one of the United States’ worst trials, as the nation battled for four bloody years over the existence of slavery. When President Abraham Lincoln prepared to be sworn in for a second term in March 1865, it was clear that a Union victory was close. (The war would end a month later with Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia.)

Rather than striking a celebratory tone, as some may have been expecting, Lincoln chose a different direction for his second inaugural address. The war was ending, the traitorous states would be returning to the Union, but Lincoln’s aim was not to gloat. Instead, the president chose to chart a path forward to unity.

He did not take sides in his speech, holding both to account for the conflict’s genesis:

Both parties deprecated war but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.

And the war came…

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained … Each looked for an easier triumph and a result less fundamental and astounding … It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces but let us judge not that we be not judged.

He emphasized the central role of slavery as an evil for which God gave the nation “this terrible war” as recompense and suggested that there may be more divine justice to come:

Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword as was said 3,000 years ago so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Lincoln’s address then takes a turn toward the compassionate, in what is perhaps its most quoted and revered passage:

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.

The immense task of healing the nation could only be done, Lincoln felt, if Americans left the judgment to God and turned to each other in unity and compassion. Lincoln would not live to enact this vision: He was assassinated 42 days after delivering this speech, which is now enshrined on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial’s north chamber in Washington, D.C.

Calming: March 4, 1933

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1933, the Great Depression was in its fourth year with no end in sight. The worst economic crisis in the history of the industrialized world, it began when a stock market crash in October 1929 sent the U.S. financial system into a tailspin. By 1933 nearly half of the nation’s banks had failed. Roughly 15 million Americans (some estimates say as much as 25 percent of the workforce) were unemployed. Many of those who had managed to keep their jobs saw their income reduced by as much as a third.

The American people were afraid and looking to their new president for leadership during the maelstrom. Millions tuned into their radios to hear the live broadcast of his swearing in, and crowds thronged the Capitol to see it in person. The very first passage of his 1933 inaugural address shows that the new president was ready to calm the storm.

This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. 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.

Roosevelt’s speech directly tells the American people they must band together as fellow soldiers in order to fight their way out of this peril:

[W]e now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline …

Roosevelt’s address shows the American people that the answer is within their hands. It is they who will end this crisis, by turning to each other for help and giving help when called upon.

Before his death in April 1945, Roosevelt won three more elections. He revitalized the nation out of the Great Depression and bravely led it through the hardships of World War II. These two masterful feats of leadership have earned FDR the respect of historians who consistently rank him as one of history’s greatest U.S. presidents.

Grieving: November 27, 1963

The peaceful transition of power by presidential election is often greeted with joy, but perhaps no national crisis is as sorrowful as when death ends a presidential term to begin another. Such was the case when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963.

Lyndon Baines Johnson, Kennedy’s vice president, was sworn in the same day aboard Air Force One and became the 36th president of the United States. His ceremony was brief, conducted in a few minutes before the plane took off for Washington, D.C. Later that evening, he delivered a short statement:

This is a sad time for all people. We have suffered a loss that cannot be weighed. For me, it is a deep personal tragedy. I know that the world shares the sorrow that Mrs. Kennedy and her family bear. I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask for your help—and God's.

Johnson later recalled that he knew he “could not let the tide of grief overwhelm me … the nation was in a state of shock and grief. The times cried out for leadership.” To begin the recovery, Johnson turned to former president Dwight D. Eisenhower for advice. The two men had worked together often when Eisenhower was in office and Johnson was serving in the Senate. Johnson valued the former president’s insight and agreed with his advice that addressing the nation would be necessary.

On November 27, 1963, five days after Kennedy’s death and two days after the funeral, Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress that was broadcast on television to the American people. The speech wasted no time in acknowledging the nation’s grief:

All I have I would have given gladly not to be standing here today.

The greatest leader of our time has been struck down by the foulest deed of our time … No words are sad enough to express our sense of loss. No words are strong enough to express our determination to continue the forward thrust of America that he began.

In the face of this loss, Johnson, like presidents before him, highlighted the importance of unity in finding a way forward through shared sorrow:

These are the United States: A united people with a united purpose. Our American unity does not depend upon unanimity. We have differences; but now, as in the past, we can derive from those differences strength … Both as a people and a government, we can unite … I am here today to say I need your help. I cannot bear this burden alone. I need the help of all Americans, and all America … I profoundly hope that the tragedy and the torment of these terrible days will bind us together in new fellowship, making us one people in our hour of sorrow.

And Johnson closed the speech with a callback to Kennedy’s inauguration address to assure the American people that his work would not cease:

On the 20th day of January, in 19 and 61, John F. Kennedy told his countrymen that our national work would not be finished “in the first thousand days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But,” he said, “let us begin.” Today in this moment of new resolve, I would say to all my fellow Americans, let us continue.

Johnson did continue, and in July 1964 signed into law the Civil Rights Act, first proposed by Kennedy in June 1963. Johnson would continue on and be elected president in his own right in November 1964.

United America

Gratitude and humility are important qualities for a president to display in an inaugural address, but it is unity that moves to the foreground in times of crisis. Past presidents, no matter their position, knew that they could not succeed if the American people did not band together, despite their differences, in the face of tragedy and hardship to move each other forward. Madison, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson all recognized the importance of that in their speeches, and it is likely that President Joe Biden will do the same in his first inaugural address whose reported theme is “America United.”

Amy Briggs is the Executive Editor of National Geographic History magazine and co-host of Overheard at National Geographic.

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