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Taking a Closer Look at Presidential Inaugurations: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address

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A recent blog post on presidential inaugurations noted that while the Constitution requires only an oath of office, presidential inaugurations have evolved to include many more activities. Many of these elements, including inaugural addresses, are documented in primary sources from the Library of Congress.

George Washington delivered the first presidential inaugural address to a joint session of Congress on April 30, 1789, suggesting amendments to the Constitution and concluding by asking a “divine blessing” on the American people and their elected representatives. Every subsequent president has followed Washington’s precedent. Studying these addresses may offer a perspective on the presidents and on the events of their presidencies.

Crowd at Lincoln’s second inauguration, March 4, 1865
Abraham Lincoln delivering his second inaugural address

One of the most widely-studied inaugural addresses came after four years of some of the bloodiest fighting the nation had seen. Although on August 23, 1864, Abraham Lincoln sent a brief memorandum to his cabinet members, declaring it “exceedingly probably (sic) that this Administration will not be re-elected,” he won with 54% of the popular vote. On March 4, 1865, he was sworn into office for a second term. His second inaugural address, approximately 700 words long, was brief, solemn, and concise, reflecting his concerns for the nation. The eloquent conclusion still resonates today: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right…” but also offers insight into Lincoln’s dedication to a lenient response to the South as the war, which ended on April 9, drew to a close.

As the United States prepares to inaugurate another president, studying primary sources about previous inaugurations can help students deepen their understanding of the role these ceremonies have played throughout the nation’s history. Examining the language and structure of inaugural speeches may offer insights into the goals and concerns of each president,  as well as the persuasive techniques and rhetorical structures each used when he first addressed the American people as their leader.

Students may:

  • Study primary sources to imagine the scene at Lincoln’s second inauguration. For example, what can they learn about the weather and the crowd by studying the two images above? What else can they learn about the event from the images? How does reading a newspaper account of the event change their understanding? What questions do they still have?
  • Study all or a portion of Lincoln’s second inaugural address to better understand what he had to say and how he said it. What themes emerge? What was his purpose in delivering this address? Students might think about the context and consider how the address reflects Lincoln’s concerns. Less advanced readers might focus on the rich language and structure of the concluding paragraph.
  • Compare Lincoln’s first inaugural address to the second.
  • Select another inauguration to study.

Let us know in a comment what aspects of the inaugural addresses resonated with your students.

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