The date for the United States presidential inauguration was not specified in the original U.S. Constitution.
In 1788, the Continental Congress set Inauguration Day as March 4. Then, in 1933, the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution changed it to January 20, reducing the outdated four-month lag between the time a president was elected and took office.
That’s why famous quotes from inaugural addresses of presidents elected before 1933 are on a March 4th date and those of presidents elected after 1933 are on a January 20th.
The Inauguration Day speeches of all of the presidents (online here) are historically interesting and many include memorable lines. But only a handful of those lines have become famous quotes.
The earliest comes from the first inaugural address of Thomas Jefferson, which took place on March 4, 1801.
That speech includes Jefferson’s oft-cited warning against “entangling alliances.” It’s part of a longer sentence that Jefferson said embodied his view on “the essential principles of our Government”:
“Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”
You have to flash forward 60 years to find another truly famous quote from a president’s inaugural address.
In Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address on March 4, 1861, he coined the well-known, poetic phrase “the mystic chords of memory.”
It came near the end of his speech, in what was a clear plea to citizens in Southern states. At that point, some states had already seceded from the Union, but no blatant act of war between the North and South had occurred. Lincoln said:
“In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war...We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Six weeks later, Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. The Civil War had begun.
Four years later, when Lincoln gave his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, the end of that bloody war was in sight. Knowing this, Lincoln expressed his hope for reconciliation with one of his most famous quotes:
“With malice towards 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 for his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”
Four weeks later, on April 9, 1865 , Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. The Civil War was over.
Four years after that, when Grant himself became president, Northern and Southern states were fighting in the legal arena over various federal laws, such as those related to the rights of the freed African-American slaves.
In Grant’s first inaugural address on March 4, 1869, he said he would not hesitate to use his power as President to veto laws that he opposed. But he noted that he would faithfully execute all laws “whether they meet my approval or not.”
To those comments, Grant added one of the most slyly witty quotes ever uttered by a U.S. president:
“I know of no method to secure the repeal of bad or obnoxious laws so effective as their stringent execution.”
The next famous presidential quotations from a March 4th inauguration speech came half a century later, in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address on March 4, 1933.
One line in that speech helped popularize the term “good neighbor policy.” Speaking about his views on foreign affairs, Roosevelt said:
“In the field of world policy I would dedicate this Nation to the policy of the good neighbor — the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others — the neighbor who respects his obligations and respects the sanctity of his agreements in and with a world of neighbors.”
But the most famous line from Roosevelt’s first inaugural address was related to domestic policy.
In 1933, America was in the midst of the Great Depression. Roosevelt wanted to generate a renewed sense of hope in the American people and inspire support for his plans to restore the economy with ambitious new government programs. But he knew that many people were afraid for their future and some were afraid that a more activist federal government would just make things worse.
So, in the first paragraph of Roosevelt’s speech, he famously addressed those fears:
“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”
Of course, Roosevelt did gain the support of the majority of Americans and was reelected to two more terms.
But his first inaugural address was the last presidential speech that included famous quotes spoken on the date March 4th.
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