It is safe to say that few of these speeches rise to the level of true greatness. My choices for best inaugurals are Lincoln’s first in 1861 (“mystic chords of memory”) and second in 1865 (“with malice toward none”) which both rise to the level of American poetry; and FDR’s first in 1933 (“the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”).
But second inaugurals often have a “Been there, done that” quality. Finding second inaugural speeches that reach greatness is even tougher. George Washington’s second was the shortest ever– a mere 135 words long. In it, he basically said, “I’m going to take the oath again and if I break any laws, you can come after me.”
Lincoln’s second, as mentioned above, is among the greatest American speeches. He showed how he had moved from preserving the Union to ending slavery:
Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
My other favorite is Franklin D Roosevelt’s second inaugural address in 1937. Like Lincoln assaulting slaveholders, Franklin D. Roosevelt did not shy away from taking on the powerful interests that he felt had brought the nation into the Great Depression:
We are beginning to abandon our tolerance of the abuse of power by those who betray for profit the elementary decencies of life.
And the speech includes one of his most memorable phrases as FDR spoke of the great inequity that still existed in America:
I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.
FDR’s idea of government being able to protect the people has fallen out of fashion in many circles, But President Obama, or anyone else who wants a good example, might look at how Franklin D. Roosevelt set the bar for a second inaugural address.