Presidential Speeches: Inaugural Addresses

While I have no problem admitting my love for the “Gettysburg Address,” nobody wants to read an entire week dedicated to celebrating good ol’ Honest Abe.  However, I’m not at a loss when it comes to great speeches.  In fact, some of the most well-known political speeches in our country fall under one category:  inaugurals.  The inaugural address becomes a symbol of a presidency and captures the pulse of the nation.  Therefore, in preparation of President’s Day, today I will be offering suggestions for some of the best inaugural addresses and providing ideas on how to use them in the classroom.

While all inaugural addresses encourage deep discussion because of the nature of the speech, some of the most highly acclaimed inaugural addresses are John F. Kennedy’s ,  Abraham Lincoln’s second, and FDR’s first inaugural.  These speeches are stylized enough to offer complete rhetorical analysis and were composed during tumultuous times in our nation’s past, making them interesting to examine contextually.  However, you could use pretty much any inaugural address to complete any of the following activities:

  • Study the speech and determine the intention of the piece.  What was the president trying to refute?  What was the president trying to convey about himself as a leader?  Similarly, ask students to consider if the speech is defending/explaining the past or speaking to the future.  Many inaugurals will try to blend the two; however, asking students to defend one position requires them to have a firm knowledge of the piece.
  • While it is easy to name several inaugurals that I think are highly memorable, it is very challenging for me to select the “best.”  After studying several inaugurals, ask students to select and defend one as the best.  They can rely on their knowledge of the context or the rhetorical function of the piece itself. 
  • Many of these inaugurals have a very clear tone and voice.  Often these elements are conveyed through the style choices made.  Have students analyze the rhetorical devices and strategies within an inaugural and identify what is the most predominant style marker.  Then, have the students consider what the style marker represents.  For example, George H.W. Bush’s inaugural address uses the metaphor (or detailed comparisons) prolifically in the speech.  Students might discuss how metaphors make use of indirect language and that the nature of the metaphor is to explain a challenging concept through a comparison the audience can understand. 
  • Students can research a president and what happened before, during, and after a term.  Then, they can evaluate the extent to which the inaugural speech reflects the values and policy of the president’s term. 

While they might not compare to the beauty, elegance, and power of the “Gettysburg Address,” the inaugural addresses are still second in my book.  They are highly polished pieces that are refined looks at and presidency, offering  a lot for students to evaluate and analyze.



Photo from:  sacks08

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