George Washington said he was “peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies” when sworn into office as the first president of the United States in 1789.
Yet he saw a great nation emerging, with enormous potential and responsibility.
“The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican model of government, are justly considered deeply, perhaps as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people,” Washington said on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York.
Every president since then has delivered an inaugural address, some of which continue to inspire and inform. President Barack Obama will deliver the fifty-seventh such speech Monday in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
“Our challenges may be new,” Obama said four years ago during his first address. “The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosities, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.”
Not every challenge is new, of course.
Thomas Jefferson, in his second inaugural address of 1805, warned against running up debt during war. He urged the nation to “meet within the year all the expenses of the year without encroaching on the rights of future generations by burdening them with the debts of the past.”
Sound familiar? That’s still good advice today. So is Ronald Reagan’s, from his second inauguration in 1985: “A dynamic economy, with more citizens working and paying taxes, will be our strongest tool to bring down budget deficits.”
Reagan warned that nearly 50 years of deficit spending had brought “a time of reckoning.”
“If not us, who? And if not now, when?” Reagan famously asked.
That could apply to all manner of challenges. But the specific answer to Reagan’s question came a decade later when President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, worked with a Republican Congress to balance the federal budget.
Today’s leaders in Washington, D.C., should strive for a reprise.
“There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America,” Clinton said during his first inaugural address in 1993.
Abraham Lincoln had to overcome personal tragedy and civil war. Yet he — and our nation — prevailed.
“The mystic chords of memory,” he said during his first inaugural address in 1861, “stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
The past informs the present. We look forward to Monday’s address.
For a chronology of inaugural addresses, with links to read them, go here.