Politics

Where Donald Trump's Inaugural Address Stacks up in History

January 20th 2017

By:
Mike Rothschild

When Donald Trump gave his inaugural address, he took his place in a long line of presidents who laid out their vision to the American people.

Since George Washington's first inaugural address on April 30, 1789, these speeches have been short and long, memorable and dull, soaring and pedantic. Trump's was also among the shorter speeches in inaugural history, running at about 1450 words. Washington's second address is the shortest ever, just 135 words. William Henry Harrison's was the longest, running for 8,445 words and taking two hours to deliver.

Instant reviews the speech were decidedly mixed.

NPR's editors noted that Trump's inaugural address reprised many of the talking points featured in his campaign stump speech. His critics derided it as apocalyptic, dark, and jingoistic. On Twitter, Trump partisans described it as "inspiring," "moving," and "powerful."

While social media allows for quick reaction, it's still too soon to know where Trump's ranks in the 228 year history of inaugural addresses.

But for context, here's how critics reacted to some of the most controversial inauguration speeches in American history.

Thomas Jefferson's Second Inaugural, 1805

In the wake of the disastrous election of 1800, Jefferson's soaring first inaugural address attempted to heal the wounds of a deeply divided nation.

But four years in power left him scorched by bad press, and he took the opportunity of his second inaugural to settle accounts. In a low-key and unenthusiastic speech, he defended his actions in office and lashed out at "the artillery of the press" for their "abuses" in covering him, recommending "wholesome punishments [...] against falsehood and defamation."

John Quincy Adams' Inaugural, 1825

Adams came into office after the disputed 1828 election, which he won despite losing both the electoral and popular vote. As such, his inaugural address was self-effacing and defensive to a fault. He spoke of "the peculiar circumstances of the recent election" and of being "less possessed of your confidence in advance than any of my predecessors."

He also gave a long summation of the country's history up until then, while saying virtually nothing about his plans for governing.

William Henry Harrison's Inaugural, 1841

Harrison took the rollicking atmosphere of his campaign into the White House. He rode down Pennsylvania Avenue on a horse with "rolling log cabins on wheels, cider barrels and raccoons" rolling behind him, according to the Chicago Tribune. He then spoke without a coat in a blinding snowstorm for two hours, churning out long-winded paragraphs about ancient Rome, the minutiae of the Constitution, separation between governmental departments, the printing of currency, veto power, and the freedom of the press.

Legend has it that Harrison spoke for so long that he contracted the illness that killed him a month later, but in reality, he didn't become sick until several weeks later.

James Buchanan's Inaugural, 1857

Widely derided for his failure to prevent the oncoming Civil War, Buchanan almost entirely side-stepped the issue of slavery, saying it was "a matter of but little practical importance." The speech came just days before the Supreme Court issued its disastrous Dred Scott decision that held slaves had no claim to US citizenship. Buchanan had likely been tipped off to the ruling, and made reference to the "long agitation on this subject [...] approaching its end."

Ignoring the only issue anyone really cared about, Buchanan then went on at great length about the Treasury's budget surplus and protecting the west coast from invasion.

Warren G. Harding Inaugural, 1921

Harding took office craving what he called a "return to normalcy." As such, he gave a pragmatic, pessimistic, and overly-long inaugural. He vowed to return America to its pre-war isolationism, saying the US " can be a party to no permanent military alliance [...] which will subject our decisions to any other than our own authority." He also batted down any talk of an economic miracle, warning that high wages might not return, and opined that "a regret for the mistakes of yesterday must not blind us to the tasks of today. "

Journalist and critic HL Mencken derided the speech as "the worst English I have ever heard" and that it reminded him of " tattered washing on the line" and "stale bean soup."

Lyndon Johnson's Inaugural, 1965

Johnson rolled to a convincing victory over Republican Barry Goldwater, but his only inaugural address was a quiet and uninspiring speech that subdued the Texan's natural charisma in favor of ponderous platitudes. Johnson spoke in a low, hushed tone that audience members strained to hear, only getting his first applause a third of the way through it. The Washington Post called it solemn and low-key, with no reference to the growing entanglement in Vietnam or the Cold War, and Johnson only reiterating his promise to "do the best he could."