The Five Worst Inaugural Addresses of the 19th Century

01
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Thomas Jefferson's Second Inaugural Address Was Angry and Bitter

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson. Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images

In picking the Five Worst Inaugural Addresses of the 1800s, we can begin with a president who also gave one of the best inaugural addresses, the one that began the 19th century.

On March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson delivered a beautiful speech that sought to unite the country after the bruising political campaign and disputed election of 1800.

Four years later, Jefferson returned to the US Senate chamber in the Capitol to give his second inaugural address. One observer claimed that Jefferson barely raised his voice, and seemed to mumble through much of his address.

Some of the text was peculiarly bitter. Four years living in the new Executive Mansion (it was not yet called the White House) had convinced Jefferson that he had many enemies. He was not entirely wrong. Rumors that Jefferson had fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings had been circulating in the newspapers for two or three years.

An exasperated Jefferson, on March 4, 1805, used the occasion of an inaugural address to chastise the newspapers: "During this course of administration, and in order to disturb it, the artillery of the press has been leveled against us, charged with whatsoever its licentiousness could devise or dare."

Displaying some moderation, Jefferson also suggested it would be wrong to crack down on the press by passing legislation to muzzle newspapers (which his predecessor, John Adams, had attempted). He optimistically claimed, "the public judgment will correct false reasonings and opinions."

Anyone alive today is used to hearing presidents complain about newspapers. But it's remarkable to read an inaugural address delivered by Thomas Jefferson and see such complaints expressed more than two centuries ago.

02
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Ulysses S. Grant's First Inaugural Address Did Not Live Up to the Moment

Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant, who did not seize an opportunity at his inaugural. Library of Congress

Standing at the podium only four years after Lincoln's second inaugural address, Ulysses S. Grant may have had an impossible act to follow. Lincoln's speech is widely considered the greatest inaugural address ever, so there isn't much chance that Grant could have topped it. But seems that he barely even tried.

Grant was actually succeeding President Andrew Johnson, who had been impeached while filling out the term of the murdered Abraham Lincoln.

And with the Civil War over, the nation was probably looking forward to better times. Grant could have come into office on March 4, 1869 offering some hope for the future.

Instead, Grant struck an oddly unambitious tone, mentioning at the outset that the presidency "has come to me unsought."

And most of his speech was simply workmanlike. There were lengthy explanations of how the enormous debts incurred to finance the Civil War had to be repaid, and other pieces of business were also mentioned. But the speech, delivered when it was, with the nation moving in a new direction after putting the carnage of the war behind it, should have been inspiring.

In fairness to Grant, The New York Times praised the speech's simplicity the next day in a front page article, so it's conceivable that it played better in person than it does today on the page.

03
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John Quincy Adams Stumbled With His Inaugural Address

John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams, who did not enjoy his presidency. Library of Congress

John Quincy Adams may have been one of the smartest men to be president, and his inaugural address reflects that, probably to a fault. The speech is pedantic and defensive, and, thanks to the circumstances of the election of 1824, it ends on a note that's close to apologetic.

Adams, on March 4, 1825, opened with an interminable sentence: "In compliance with an usage coeval with the existence of our Federal Constitution, and sanctioned by the example of my predecessors in the career upon which I am about to enter, I appear, my fellow-citizens, in your presence and in that of Heaven to bind myself by the solemnities of religious obligation to the faithful performance of the duties allotted to me in the station to which I have been called."

Adams then expressed, at considerable length, his devotion to the Constitution. In fact, John Quincy Adams was the only president who did not place his hand on a Bible while taking the oath of office. He instead placed his hand on a book containing the laws of the United States, including the U.S. Constitution.

Adams became president after an election that had to be settled in the House of Representatives, in what became known as "The Corrupt Bargain." And at the end of his speech he refers to the "peculiar circumstances of the recent election."

He then spoke this sad sentence: "Less possessed of your confidence in advance than any of my predecessors, I am deeply conscious of the prospect that I shall stand more and oftener in need of your indulgence."

Adams did come under withering attack during his time in the White House. He did not enjoy being president, and after his single term he moved back to Massachusetts. He was elected to the House of Representatives, where he became an eloquent opponent of slavery. He later said he was most happy serving in the Congress.

04
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James Buchanan's Inaugural Address: The Word "Clueless" Comes to Mind

James Buchanan
James Buchanan, who seemed oblivious while the nation moved toward war. Library of Congress

James Buchanan is often derided as one of the worst American presidents, and he began to work at being an awful president right at the outset.

Buchanan delivered his inaugural address on March 4, 1857, at a time when the United States was well on the road toward Civil War. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed three years earlier, had been an attempt to settle differences over slavery, yet it only made things worse.

A president taking office at that time of crisis might have risen to the challenge and helped the nation avert the slide toward war. But Buchanan gave a speech that some considered contemptible if not cowardly. And it might also be termed obtuse.

After addressing the violent situation in what was being called "Bleeding Kansas," Buchanan actually declared that the "long agitation on this subject is approaching its end."

No, President Buchanan, not even close. The dispute over slavery was anything but settled. Two days after Buchanan's clueless oratory, the Chief Justice who swore in Buchanan, Roger Taney, delivered the notorious Dred Scott decision, which inflamed things even more.

The national debate over slavery, instead of coming to the speedy end Buchanan seemed to envision, intensified. And four years later a candidate running on the anti-slavery ticket of the new Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln, would replace Buchanan and deliver one of the nation's best inaugural addresses.

As for Buchanan's inaugural address, it goes down in history as the second worst only because of William Henry Harrison, who did everything possible to make his own the worst ever.

05
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William Henry Harrison's Inaugural Address Was the Worst Ever

William Henry Harrison
William Henry Harrison, whose horrendous inaugural address doomed him. Library of Congress

William Henry Harrison delivered the worst inaugural address in history on March 4, 1841. No question about it.

  • It was the longest inaugural address, at more than 8,000 words.
  • It took more than two hours to deliver.
  • It was delivered in a snowstorm.
  • Much of the speech dealt, inexplicably, with ancient Roman history.
  • While the speech went on forever, it followed the "Log Cabin and Hard Cider Campaign" that was oddly devoid of issues.
  • The speech bored the freezing crowd.
  • And for the new president it was fatal.

Fatal?

Yes, fatal. The calamitous speech killed the new president.

Harrison, who was 68 years old, was not wearing a hat or overcoat on the snowy day. He caught a cold while delivering the seemingly endless oration, and his condition developed into pneumonia. A month later Harrison became the first American president to die in office. He was succeeded by the vice president, John Tyler.

And how awful was the speech that cost the new president his life? You can read it today, if you have two hours to kill. But dress warmly, and know that if you invite people to listen, they will not be pleased.