The Five Best Inaugural Addresses of the 19th Century

Vintage print of the first twenty-one Presidents seated together in The White House.
Vintage print of the first twenty-one Presidents seated together in The White House.

John Parrot / Stocktrek Images / Getty Images

Inaugural addresses of the 19th century are generally collections of platitudes and patriotic bombast. But a few stand out as being quite good, and one in particular, Lincoln's second inaugural, is generally considered one of the greatest speeches in all of American history.

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Benjamin Harrison Delivered a Surprisingly Well-Written Speech

Benjamin Harrison
Benjamin Harrison, whose grandfather delivered the worst inaugural address ever. Library of Congress

A surprisingly good inauguration address was delivered on March 4, 1889 by Benjamin Harrison, the grandson of the president who gave the worst inaugural address ever. Yes, Benjamin Harrison, who's remembered, when he's remembered, as something of a point of trivia, as his time in the White House came between the terms of the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms, Grover Cleveland.

Harrison gets no respect. The Encyclopedia of World Biography, in the very first sentence of its article on Harrison, describes him as “possibly the dullest personality ever to inhabit the White House.”

Taking office at a time when the United States was enjoying progress and wasn’t facing any great crisis, Harrison chose to deliver something of a history lesson to the nation. He was likely prompted to do so as his inauguration occurred a month shy of the 100th anniversary of George Washington’s first inauguration.

He began by noting that there is no Constitutional requirement that presidents give an inaugural address, yet they do it as it creates a “mutual covenant” with the American people.

Harrison's inaugural speech reads very well today, and some passages, such as when he talks about the United States becoming an industrial power following the Civil War, are actually quite elegant.

Harrison only served one term. After leaving the presidency, Harrison took to writing, and became the author of This Country of Ours, a civics textbook which was widely used in American schools for decades.

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Andrew Jackson's First Inaugural Brought a New Era to America

Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson, whose first inaugural address signified a change in America. Library of Congress

Andrew Jackson was the first American president from what was then considered the west. And when he arrived in Washington for his inauguration in 1829, he tried to avoid celebrations planned for him.

That was mainly because Jackson was in mourning for his wife, who had recently died. But it’s also true that Jackson was something of an outsider, and seemed happy to remain that way.

Jackson had won the presidency in what was perhaps the dirtiest campaign ever. As he detested his predecessor, John Quincy Adams, who had defeated him in the “Corrupt Bargain” election of 1824, he didn’t even bother to meet with him.

On March 4, 1829, huge crowds for the time turned out for Jackson’s inauguration, which was the first to be held outside at the Capitol. At that time the tradition was for the new president to speak before taking the oath of office, and Jackson gave a brief address, which took little more than ten minutes to deliver.

Reading Jackson's first inaugural address today, much of it sounds fairly quaint. Noting that a standing army is "dangerous to free governments," the war hero speaks of the “national militia” which “must render us invincible.” He also called for “internal improvements,” by which he would have meant the building of roads and canals, and for the “diffusion of knowledge.”

Jackson spoke of taking advice from the other branches of government and generally struck a very humble tone. When the speech was published it was praised widely, with partisan newspapers raving that it “breathes throughout the pure spirit of republicanism of the Jefferson school.”

That is no doubt what Jackson intended, as the opening of his speech was quite similar to the opening sentence of Thomas Jefferson’s widely praised first inaugural address.

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Lincoln's First Inaugural Dealt With an Impending National Crisis

Abraham Lincoln in 1860
Abraham Lincoln, photographed during the campaign of 1860. Library of Congress

Abraham Lincoln delivered his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861, as the nation was literally coming apart. Several southern states had already announced their intention to secede from the Union, and it appeared the nation was headed toward open rebellion and armed conflict.

One of the first of many problems facing Lincoln was exactly what to say in his inaugural address. Lincoln had drafted a speech before he left Springfield, Illinois, for the long train trip to Washington. And when he showed drafts of the speech to others, most notably William Seward, who would serve as Lincoln’s secretary of state, some changes were made.

Seward’s fear was that if the tone of Lincoln's speech was too provocative, it might lead to Maryland and Virginia, the pro-slavery states surrounding Washington, to secede. And the capital city would then be a fortified island in the midst of a rebellion.

Lincoln did temper some of his language. But reading the speech today, it’s striking how he quickly dispenses with other matters and devotes the speech to the crisis over secession and the issue of slavery.

A speech delivered at Cooper Union in New York City a year earlier dealt with slavery and had propelled Lincoln toward the presidency, elevating him above other contenders for the Republican nomination.

So while Lincoln, in his first inaugural, expressed the notion that he meant the southern states no harm, any informed person knew how he felt about the issue of slavery.

"We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection," he said in his final paragraph, before ending with an often-quoted appeal to the "better angels of our nature."

Lincoln's speech was lauded in the north. The south took it as a challenge to go to war. And the Civil War began the following month.

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Thomas Jefferson's First Inaugural Was an Eloquent Beginning to the Century

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson gave a philosophical inaugural address in 1801. Library of Congress

Thomas Jefferson took the oath of office for the first time on March 4, 1801, in the Senate chamber of the US Capitol building, which was still under construction. The election of 1800 had been closely contested and was finally decided after days of balloting in the House of Representatives. Aaron Burr, who nearly became president, became vice president.

The other losing candidate in 1800 was the incumbent president and candidate of the Federalist Party, John Adams. He chose not to attend Jefferson’s inauguration, and instead departed Washington for his home in Massachusetts.

Against this backdrop of a young nation embroiled in political controversy, Jefferson struck a conciliatory tone in his inaugural address.

“We have called by different names brethren of the same principle," he said at one point. "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”

Jefferson continued in a philosophical tone, making references to both ancient history and the warfare then being waged in Europe. As he put it, the United States is “kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one-quarter of the globe.”

He spoke eloquently of his own ideas of government, and the occasion of inauguration thus afforded Jefferson a public opportunity to distill and express ideas which he held dear. And a major emphasis was for partisans to put differences aside and to aspire to work for the greater good of the republic.

Jefferson's first inaugural address was praised widely in its own time. It was published and when it reached France, it was hailed as a model for republican government.

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Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address Was the Best of the 19th Century

Abraham Lincoln in 1865
Abraham Lincoln in early 1865, showing the strain of the presidency. Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress

Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address has been called his greatest speech. That is extremely high praise when you consider other contenders, such as the speech at Cooper Union or the Gettysburg Address.

As Abraham Lincoln prepared for his second inauguration, it was obvious that the end of the Civil War was near. The Confederacy had not yet surrendered, but it was so badly damaged that its capitulation was all but inevitable.

The American public, weary and battered from four years of war, was in a reflective and celebratory mood. Many thousands of citizens streamed into Washington to witness the inauguration, which was held on a Saturday.

The weather in Washington was rainy and foggy in the days preceding the event, and even the morning of March 4, 1865 was wet. But just as Abraham Lincoln rose to speak, adjusting his spectacles, the weather cleared and rays of sunshine broke through. The crowd gasped. An “occasional correspondent” for the New York Times, the journalist and poet Walt Whitman, noted the "flooding splendor from heaven's most excellent sun" in his dispatch.

The speech itself is brief and brilliant. Lincoln refers to “this terrible war,” and expresses a heartfelt desire for reconciliation, which, sadly, he would not live to see.

The final paragraph, a single sentence, is truly a masterpiece of American literature:

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.

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McNamara, Robert. "The Five Best Inaugural Addresses of the 19th Century." ThoughtCo, Nov. 17, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, November 17). The Five Best Inaugural Addresses of the 19th Century. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Five Best Inaugural Addresses of the 19th Century." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).