On a day laden with tradition, it's no wonder that the founders of those traditions are name-dropped in inaugural addresses. It also helps that the inauguration ceremony overlooks monuments for founding fathers and former Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
For example, President Grover Cleveland
, in his first inaugural address, encapsulates the spirit in which the names of the founders are invoked:
"On this auspicious occasion we may well renew the pledge of our devotion to the Constitution, which, launched by the founders of the Republic and consecrated by their prayers and patriotic devotion, has for almost a century borne the hopes and the aspirations of a great people through prosperity and peace and through the shock of foreign conflicts and the perils of domestic strife and vicissitudes."
As for the founding documents, it's no wonder the Constitution is so often a supporting character in the speech. It's the whole reason everyone is gathering for the inauguration in the first place. Even George Washington mentioned the newly minted Constitution in his first inaugural
America's challenges, poverty and joblessness
On what is largely a day of celebration, many new presidents make sure not to gloss over the immense challenges the country is always facing. Being president isn't easy -- even during the country's best, most prosperous days, there are challenges. Since the inaugural address stands in for that year's State of the Union address, it's important for the president to communicate an understanding of the issues and to propose some kind of solution for them.
When President Abraham Lincoln delivered his first inaugural
address the country was beginning to tear itself apart, something that Lincoln addressed head-on:
"We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, 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."
One problem that persists, regardless of the president or party in charge, is poverty. Many presidents take a moment to speak to some of their most disenfranchised constituents.
President Franklin Roosevelt spoke directly to the millions of Americans impacted by the Great Depression during his 1937 inaugural
"I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished. It is not in despair that I paint you that picture. I paint it for you in hope -- because the Nation, seeing and understanding the injustice in it, proposes to paint it out. We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country's interest and concern; and we will never regard any faithful, law-abiding group within our borders as superfluous. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."
Friends and enemies
Foreign policy has played a bigger role in inaugural addresses since the world wars, and with people around the world watching the inauguration, new presidents have taken the opportunity to use the platform to speak to America's friends as well as its enemies.
In 1985, during the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan made sure to mention the Soviets
in his speech:
"Today, we utter no prayer more fervently than the ancient prayer for peace on Earth. Yet history has shown that peace does not come, nor will our freedom be preserved, by good will alone. There are those in the world who scorn our vision of human dignity and freedom. One nation, the Soviet Union, has conducted the greatest military buildup in the history of man, building arsenals of awesome offensive weapons."
And in 1961, President John F. Kennedy
gave a shout out -- and assurance -- to America's friends in the United Nations:
"To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations, our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace, we renew our pledge of support -- to prevent it from becoming merely a forum for invective -- to strengthen its shield of the new and the weak -- and to enlarge the area in which its writ may run."
The American spirit
You can't give a good inauguration speech without celebrating America. The inauguration is arguably the most American thing after the Fourth of July and apple pie.
Let's look at President Barack Obama's first inaugural.
He gives a good speech, and it's a fitting place to end on the last days of his presidency:
"But those values upon which our success depends -- honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism -- these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility, a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our Nation, and the world."