Inauguration Speeches: What Obama Could Takeaway from Washington and Jefferson


George Washington (March 4, 1793) and Thomas Jefferson (March 4, 1805):

This article is an installment in an eleven-part series on the inaugurations of incumbent presidents who were elected to additional terms in office, culminating in an on-the-ground report of Obama's second inauguration.


George Washington's second inauguration marked several firsts. It was the first presidential inauguration to be held in Philadelphia, the first to occur on March 4th (the official commencement date of new presidential terms designated by the Continental Congress), and (of course) the first time a president would be called upon to renew his term of service to his country. Perhaps most notably, it was marked by the shortest inaugural address in our nation's history - one so brief, in fact, that it can be quoted here in full.

Fellow Citizens:

I am again called upon by the voice of my country to execute the functions of its Chief Magistrate. When the occasion proper for it shall arrive, I shall endeavor to express the high sense I entertain of this distinguished honor, and of the confidence which has been reposed in me by the people of united America.

Previous to the execution of any official act of the President the Constitution requires an oath of office. This oath I am now about to take, and in your presence: That if it shall be found during my administration of the Government I have in any instance violated willingly or knowingly the injunctions thereof, I may (besides incurring constitutional punishment) be subject to the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony.

To discerning eyes, the second paragraph is perhaps the most powerful. Today there is nothing novel about the idea that a national leader should be "upbraided" by the citizenry should he betray the confidence of the people. In 1793, however, democracy was still a burgeoning and controversial experiment. When he insisted that he intended to do right by his office, Washington wasn't reiterating a platitude; he was pioneering it.


As Thomas Jefferson prepared for his second term, his supporters no doubt marveled at the transformation that had occurred during his first four years in office. America's chief proponent of small government had immersed the nation  in a war with the Barbary pirates off the coast of North Africa, established the United States Military Academy at West Point, doubled the size of the United States by purchasing the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon Bonaparte, and commissioned an expedition of that territory by explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. In his inaugural address, Jefferson drew attention to these developments before concluding:

Nor was it uninteresting to the world that an experiment should be fairly and fully made, whether freedom of discussion, unaided by power, is not sufficient for the propagation and protection of truth — whether a government conducting itself in the true spirit of its constitution, with zeal and purity, and doing no act which it would be unwilling the whole world should witness, can be written down by falsehood and defamation. The experiment has been tried; you have witnessed the scene; our fellow-citizens looked on, cool and collected; they saw the latent source from which these outrages proceeded; they gathered around their public functionaries, and when the Constitution called them to the decision by suffrage, they pronounced their verdict, honorable to those who had served them and consolatory to the friend of man who believes that he may be trusted with the control of his own affairs.

There was no small amount of self-congratulation in these comments (or, indeed, throughout Jefferson's speech), but the immodesty of his declarations did nothing to detract from their perceptiveness. After the heated and controversial election in 1800 between Jefferson and his Federalist predecessor, President John Adams, it stood to reason that the eyes of the world would be on the policies implemented by the Democratic-Republican. That Jefferson had not remained entirely faithful to the principles of his own party was beyond dispute; that those same policies had been overwhelmingly ratified by the people was equally indisputable, as evidenced in the very fact of Jefferson's re-election in 1804.