THE INAUGURAL . . . from Virginia's George Washington to California's Ronald Reagan
The war was won, the Constitution ratified, George Washington prepared to set out on his triumphal journey to New York to make the first inaugural address, but first he borrowed L500 from Richard Conway "to discharge what I owe in Alexandria and leave the state." Two days later he borrowed an extra L100 to make sure he had adequate funds to avoid any embarrassment on the tremendous occasion.Skip to next paragraph
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Washington made a splendid figure of a man as he stood in plain brown suit on the balcony of Federal Hall overlooking Wall Street and the cheering crowds, April 30, 1789. He was to set the pattern for exhortation and personal leadership that have come to mark inaugural addresses.
There are always the human, personal touches, too -- like Washington's financial accounts -- that set every one of the affairs off from the others.
How the phrases leap out at you!
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" . . . "Ask not what your country can do for your; . . ." . . . "With malice toward none . . . ."
There have been pedestrian phrases, too, along with the passages of eloquence. McKinley told the crowd, March 4, 1897: "A deficiency is inevitable so long as the expenditures of the government exceed its receipts." There is Nixon's hardly felicitous mixed metaphor in his first inaugural: "The American dream does not come to those who fall asleep." (That was the inaugural, you remember, when he told an approving nation, "We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another . . . .")
The longest and dullest inaugural address came from the hero of Tippecanoe, Gen. William Henry Harrison (March 4, 1841), after the jolliest campaign. He took it upon himself to patronize the Founding Fathers, for example: "It was certainly a great error of the framers of the Constitution not to have made the officer at the head of the Treasury Department entirely independent of the executive . . . ."
His speech took two hours to deliver, as compared with Washington's second inaugural, the shortest of all at 135 words, including "fellow citizens" at the start.
What did Washington say in his first inaugural that started off one of the oldest and most hallowed ceremonies of the nation? Not much, really, in a political sense. (He saved his philosophy for his eloquent farewell address in 1796, decrying the "baneful effects of the spirit of party" and establishing the two-term tradition.)
It was not what Washington said in New York or Philadelphia, but what he was. He gave the office luster. That April day in New York he rejected all "personal emoluments" for the task and ended the tremendous oath of presidential office with the words "so help me God," and kissed the Bible.
Zachary Taylor was another simple, honest soldier like General Harrison, and his inaugural address (1849) also left something to be desired. His immediate predecessor, James K. Polk, wrote of the occasion in his intimate personal diary:
"He read it in a very low voice and very badly as to his pronunciation and manner." (The first use of amplifiers was in the Harding inaugural, which made it possible for the first time for the immense crowd on the Capitol Plaza to hear what was being said).