• Susannah Colt

A BRIEF HISTORY OF INAUGURAL ADDRESSES



I completely agree with Professor Randall Balmer’s suggestion (The Concord Monitor Forum, Dec. 6, 2020) that on Inauguration Day President Biden should offer a few conciliatory words to Trump as a way to heal the nation’s wounds. However, I’m afraid there will be no one present to receive those words, literally and figuratively.


The question on everyone’s minds, especially the bookies and oddsmakers, is will Trump show up for Biden’s inauguration? Will Biden have the opportunity to thank his predecessor in person the way all the presidents since Jimmy Carter, except for two, have thanked their predecessors for their service? Can you guess which presidents hold that distinction? You would be correct if you said Ronald Reagan and Donald J. Trump.


The Avalon Project of the Lillian Goldman Law Library at Yale Law School has very conveniently posted on their website all the Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents, starting with George Washington in 1789. I have perused them all.


Prior to Jimmy Carter’s address in 1977, the only president who mentioned his predecessor was William Howard Taft on March 4, 1909. His predecessor was Theodore Roosevelt. Because Roosevelt elected not to run for re-election in 1908 and because of his overwhelming popularity, Roosevelt was able to hand-pick his successor, Taft. So it stood to reason that Taft would salute his “distinguished predecessor” and promise to carry on the work he started.


Jimmy Carter started his Inaugural Address, “For myself and for our Nation, I want to thank my predecessor [Gerald Ford] for all he has done to heal our land.”


Ronald Reagan in 1981 thanked Carter for a smooth transition of authority. “By your gracious cooperation in the transition process . . . I thank you and your people for all your help in maintaining the continuity which is the bulwark of our Republic.” Other than that, there was no gratitude expressed for Carter’s service to the country.


George H. W. Bush, taking over the presidency from Reagan in 1989, stated, “There is a man here who has earned a lasting place in our hearts and in our history. President Reagan, on behalf of our nation, I thank you for the wonderful things you have done for America.”


When Bush was defeated after only one term by Bill Clinton, Clinton stated in his Inaugural Address in 1993, “On behalf of our nation, I salute my predecessor, President Bush, for his half-century of service to America.” Like Carter and Ford, Clinton and Bush developed a long and lasting friendship after Clinton retired from the presidency.


At his Inaugural Address in 2001, George W. Bush stated, “As I begin, I thank President Clinton for his service to our nation; and I thank Vice President Gore for a contest conducted with spirit and ended with grace.” That shows great magnanimity on the part of Bush especially in light of the close and contentious race which ultimately was decided by the Supreme Court. A race in which Gore graciously conceded once the gavel was pounded for the last time.


After Bush served out his two terms, Barack Obama, in 2009, started his Inaugural Address, “I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.”


Trump modeled the beginning of his Inaugural Address after Reagan’s stating, “Every four years we gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power, and we are grateful to President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid throughout this transition. They have been magnificent.” But Trump never thanked Obama for his service and the rest of his speech essentially blamed Obama for all the troubles in the country. It was by far the darkest and doomsday-iest (my word) address since Richard Nixon’s address in 1969.


Which brings us back to the question of whether Trump will even show up for his successor’s inauguration? How can someone who refuses to concede the election and continues to claim it was stolen, actually show up at the capitol steps on that day to watch the man he loathes take the oath of office he refuses to give up? My guess is he will not show.


If he fails to show up, he will join only three presidents who failed to summon the courage and courtesy to show up at their successor’s inauguration – John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Johnson. All were one-term presidents. The two Adams, father and son, slipped out of the capital in their carriages at the wee hours of the morning on inauguration day. John Adams bore such a huge grudge against Thomas Jefferson he couldn’t bear to see him become president. The apple did not fall far from the tree as John Quincy followed in his father’s carriage wheels.


Andrew Johnson, who succeeded to the presidency at the hands of an assassin’s bullet in Abraham Lincoln’s head, was not chosen by his party as a candidate for a potential second term. His mortal enemy, Ulysses S. Grant, won the election. He would go to his death bed blaming Grant for being impeached and never had any intention of showing up for Grant’s inauguration on March 4, 1869.


I will not wager any bets on whether Trump shows up for Biden’s inauguration.


If I were Biden, I would utter the following words:


“I thank President Trump for his service to our nation, especially for being the inspiration behind ensuring the presidential election proceeded smoothly during this terrible pandemic, without an iota of evidence of fraud, and drawing a record number of people to the polls to shine a light on our enduring democracy to the rest of the world. To quote one of our brightest lights, Abraham Lincoln, from his second inaugural address just weeks before the end of the Civil War: ‘With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.’



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