Inaugural Addresses Then and Now

An archival look at presidential inaugural talks, and a contemporary, amusing historian's take on the often-clunky, but increasingly populist, first-day rhetoric.

Michael S. Oberman, J.D. '72, a New York attorney, reminds us that "My Fellow Citizens...," his exhaustive look at U.S. presidential inaugural addresses appeared in these pages in January-February 1977.

Jill Lepore, Kemper professor of American history and chair of the history and literature program, takes a more light-hearted look at the form in "The Speech," published in the January 12 issue of the New Yorker. She finds an evolution in presidential concerns, from a focus on adhering to the Constitution toward a more populist form of appealing directly to the American people. And she discovers unexpectedly affecting eloquence in the address made by James Garfield, elected in 1880, who concluded as follows, in a passage that resonates for January 20, 2009:

My countrymen, we do not now differ in our judgment concerning the controversies of past generations, and 50 years hence our children will not be divided in their opinions concerning our controversies. They will surely bless their fathers and their fathers' God that the Union was preserved, that slavery was overthrown, and that both races were made equal before the law. We may hasten or we may retard, but we can not prevent, the final reconciliation.

Lepore is coauthor of a new historical novel, Blindspot, covered in the November-December 2008 Harvard Magazine.

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