In more than 200 years of American history, U.S. presidents have given dozens of inaugural addresses. Yet for all these lengthy speeches, written by brilliant speechwriters, given by some of the greatest men in American history, how many truly memorable quotes do we have from presidential inaugural speeches? A handful, maybe 10. Certainly John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you …” quote stands out. Ditto Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself …” Most other quotes are far more obscure. But if you dig deep into some of these inaugural addresses, you’ll find some poignant quotes that underline the hopes and fears, the ambitions and the uncertainties of the nation at the time. Looking back in retrospect, these quotes defined their era. Here’s a look at 10 of the best such quotes, in chronological order.
10. Barack Obama (2009)
“The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works; whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.”
The new president wasted little time in rolling back the limited government philosophy that prevailed during the conservative era launched by Ronald Reagan.
9. Ronald Reagan (1981)
“In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
This quote perfectly summarizes Reagan’s sentiments on government’s role in the U.S.
8. Richard Nixon (1969)
“We have endured a long night of the American spirit. But as our eyes catch the dimness of the first rays of dawn, let us not curse the remaining dark. Let us gather the light.”
Nixon assumed power in the final year of a decade filled with a controversial war, the assassinations of several key figures, urban riots, student protests and general civil unrest. Unfortunately, Nixon’s Watergate scandal added fuel to the fire, prompting his successor, Gerald Ford, to note in his first address to the nation, “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”
7. John F. Kennedy (1961)
“Ask not what your country can do you for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
A man named Theodore Sorensen penned this memorable line for JFK. Sorenson served as much more than a speechwriter, acting as one of the president’s most trusted aides. Sorensen clearly found the zone while writing that inaugural speech, coining several other quotes that resonate through the ages, most notably, “Let every nation know … that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
6. Harry Truman (1949)
“Communism is based on the belief that man is so weak and inadequate that he is unable to govern himself, and therefore requires the rule of strong masters. Democracy is based on the conviction that man has the moral and intellectual capacity, as well as the inalienable right, to govern himself with reason and justice.”
Truman spent a great deal of time in his inaugural address outlining the failures of what he called the “false philosophy” of communism, not surprising given the rise of the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia following WWII.
5. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933)
“Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Many people assume FDR made this quote during one of his so-called “Fireside Chats,” national radio addresses he made to reassure the American public during the Great Depression and World War II.
4. Woodrow Wilson (1917)
“We are provincials no longer. The tragic events of the thirty months of vital turmoil through which we have just passed have made us citizens of the world. There can be no turning back. Our own fortunes as a nation are involved whether we would have it so or not.”
Before World War I, the United States had followed a largely isolationist foreign policy. The U.S. declared its neutrality at the beginning of the war, but the country gradually became drawn into the conflict, first supplying munitions and equipment to Britain and other Allied nations. Within one month of Wilson’s address, the U.S. would be an active participant in the war, helping defeat Germany. More than 116,000 American soldiers were killed in combat.
3. Abraham Lincoln (1865)
“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.”
Coming near the end of the Civil War — Lee surrendered to Grant about a month later at Appomattox — these were the final words of Lincoln’s extremely brief second inaugural speech. He would be assassinated within a matter of weeks.
2. Thomas Jefferson (1801)
“Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.”
At the time of Jefferson’s inauguration, the Founding Fathers were still a little apprehensive about how institutions such as the presidency, Supreme Court and Congress would evolve, and how the young nation could avoid the pitfalls of governments throughout history. Jefferson’s address contained numerous references to the proper role of government.
1. George Washington (1789)
“No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.”
There is heated debate today over how the Founding Fathers felt about God and issues such as the separation of church and state. America’s first president made his feelings quite clear on the subject in the first-ever inaugural address.
Here’s a great resource, The American Presidency Project, operated through the University of California Santa Barbara, with the complete inaugural addresses from every U.S. president.