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Words Matter: What an Inaugural Address Means Now

Posted by on Friday, January 15, 2021 in Papers.

By Vanessa B. Beasley, Associate Professor of Communication Studies and Vice Provost for Academic Affairs

UNIFYING THEME: Polarization: Its Past, Present and Future

SUMMARY: Presidents’ words create national identity. For better or worse, presidential rhetoric tells the American people who they are.  Ultimately, a president’s voice must provide the American people with a concrete vision of how—and more importantly, why—to move forward together.

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Presidents’ words matter.  Such a statement may seem especially relevant right now, but it has been true throughout the course of U.S. history. Richard Neustadt wrote in 1960 that “presidential power is the power to persuade,” and much of his focus was on how chief executives must bargain with members from other branches of government.[1]  Yet consider how much of presidents’ executive action can be done through their words alone as well as how far those words can now reach due to the rise of mass and social media. They can veto, nominate, declare war, agree to peace, issue executive orders, define the state of the union, and pardon.  Today, as Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson have argued, “[P]residential rhetoric is the source of executive power, enhanced in the modern presidency by the ability to speak where, when, and on whatever topic they choose and to reach a national audience through coverage by the electronic media.”[2]

In the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, many are thinking about the difference between what a president’s words can do and what they should do.  Recent images of the Capitol steps captured this contrast clearly when insurrectionists, determined to break into the building and terrorize its occupants, transformed the scaffolding installed for the ceremony of a peaceful transfer of power on Inauguration Day into scaling ladders.  In the days since, amidst heightened fears for public safety, there have been recurring questions about what kinds of security will be required on Inauguration Day 2021.  But what kinds of words could possibly be deployed as well?

When we consider the history of what most presidents have said when inaugurated, it is worth remembering this is an invented tradition; there is no Constitutional requirement for a new president to give an inaugural address. The actual requirement is only for the new president to be sworn in and take an oath per Article II, Section 1.  Yet ever since George Washington chose to give an inaugural address in April 1789, in New York City, his successors have given such a speech.  In addition to becoming a traditional part of a larger civic ritual, over time this speech has come to occupy a unique space in the public performance of the presidency.

Listening to—and later, watching—an inaugural address can inform both U.S. citizens and the broader world alike what kind of leader a new president will be.  Think of a young John F. Kennedy, inexperienced in foreign policy, giving his inaugural address at the height of the Cold War, with outgoing president (and architect of D-Day) Dwight Eisenhower nearby in camera shot from almost every angle.  Today Kennedy’s inaugural address may be remembered for its elegant, moving chiasmus—“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”—focused on domestic service.[3]  On the day it was given, though, the visual message designed for a global television audience in general and the Soviet Union in particular was meant to be just as noticeable: The United States might have a new president, but it was no less prepared to protect democracy around the world.

As this example indicates, a presidential inaugural address is arguably less about an individual president and more about how well and fully he (and one day soon, she) comprehends this new role and its symbolic import.  This speech offers the first public test.  Does the new office holder truly know how to act on the oath just taken, acknowledging the necessity to transcend the views of one person or one party?  In other words, this speech signals how much the new president understands what the presidency means—or can mean—to the American people, whose communal shared interests the U.S. president, as opposed to members of Congress shivering behind him, has vowed to safeguard. For this reason, the inaugural address needs to be grounded in historical tradition but also responsive to the emergent needs of its own time.

Arguably, few presidents have understood this need better than Washington did.  In his inaugural address, he referred to the speech itself as his “first official act” as president, a role many of his contemporaries were dubious about due to fears the position would simply replicate the British monarchy or otherwise steer too much power into a nascent federal system.  Within this context, Washington crafted the very first presidential words ever uttered for the purpose of reassuring his audience, those in attendance in the Senate Chamber as well as those who would read about the speech in the following days.  His intentions were clear. He would remain humble and serve despite his own “anxieties,” a word he used in the first sentence; remain reverent to the “Almighty Being who rules over the universe” and who might presumably favor the new nation; and, more than anything else, remain obliged to the new Congress (acknowledging he understood the Constitutional limitations imposed on the executive) and therefore the “public good.”[4]

To define this wholly new concept of an American public good, Washington did not spell out a policy agenda but identified what his role as its guardian would require: “no local prejudices, or attachments; no separate views, nor party animosities, will misdirect the comprehensive and equal eye which ought to watch over this great assemblage of communities and interests….”[5]  With Federalists and Anti-Federalists having been at odds about the structure and scope of the new government, Washington was not only carving out clear ground for the presidency, but he was also providing ideological rivals with an alternative way to view themselves.  They might remain political adversaries, but they should always remember that they were the custodians of an “experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people,” who must surely remain focused on “a regard for the public harmony.”[6]

It would be up to Washington’s successors to similarly define and eventually expand American national identity in such transcendent terms.  As I have argued elsewhere, the great majority of presidents have done so with remarkable similarity, using themes related to civil religion to define American identity as overriding other partisan or sectional allegiances.  Historically, civil religious themes have been associated with American national identity not only because of their pseudo-religious aspects (e.g.,  a promise of providential favor on the United States, as in Washington’s inaugural, or the subsequent political appropriation of John Winthrop’s scriptural framing of the land as “a shining city on a hill”) but also because of the idea that the nation offered its citizens opportunities to become someone new, a recurring theme of American identity also famously captured by early foreign observers such as Crevecoeur and de Tocqueville.[7]

This idea of the inaugural address as an invitation to collective renewal–of convening a new beginning, together–is also one of the patterns identified by Campbell and Jamieson in their study of the characteristic rhetorical elements consistent in all presidential inaugurals over time.[8] Especially after contentious elections, they write, this first speech must respond to an urgent need to “unif[y] the audience by reconstituting its members as ‘the people,’ who can witness and ratify the ceremony.”[9]  Viewed through this lens, the address is therefore not only an opportunity for presidents to demonstrate an understanding of their role, but it is also an opportunity for “the people” to do the same.

An example is Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural after the fiercely divisive election of 1800, which was also the first time an incumbent president had not been reelected.  To reunite a divided people, Jefferson did not ignore the reality of the divisions still among them or the unprecedented nastiness of the campaign.  “During the contest of opinion through which we have passed, the animation of discussion and of exertion has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think,” he noted, reminding citizens that it was their unique democratic privilege to be able to disagree so openly about politics.  “But this now being decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good.”[10]  Jefferson was defining American identity by setting a clear boundary:  Americans follow the rules, even when they do not like the outcome.

And yet of course any discussion of Jefferson’s definition of American character must state the obvious: Like Washington, he was never really speaking to or about all of the inhabitants of the United States. There was no acknowledgement of enslaved people or indigenous people as part of this common good. There was no sense that these people were part of what was being reunited after an election or at any other time either.  Following the rules of the day, in fact, demanded otherwise, including the violent separation of kin and tribe in order to build a new nation. Likewise, while white women were considered invaluable to a virtuous republic, there was no understanding that their interests might be in any way different from the white men who voted presumably, if not always accurately, for them.

In 2021, an awareness of how many of “the people” have been ignored in prior inaugural addresses raises questions about what an inaugural address means now.  If it is to be rooted in rhetorical traditions, which ones?  Like other genres of presidential speech, inaugural addresses are constructed around pillars of baked-in impulses and assumptions held by previous generations about who deserved to be called an American and whose interests should be included in a non-partisan, unifying sense of the common good.[11]  Even one of the most beautiful phrases in any inaugural, Lincoln’s appeal to the “better angels of our nature” in his first, gives pause when you realize that the “us” implied in Lincoln’s sense of “our nature,” was necessarily almost exclusively white and male because of who his intended audience in 1861 was as well as his stated intent in the same speech not to interfere with “the institution of slavery” during his presidency.[12]

Does this fact mean that Lincoln’s first words as president, like the traditions they were written to follow, are irrelevant to what presidents should do today when they invite the American people to renew their faith in a democratic republic? To the contrary, they are instructive exactly because they reveal where to begin the rhetorical work that remains to be done:  the revision of a tradition of presidential speech with the explicit goal of expanding the common good into something larger than partisan interest or individual gain, as the previous examples indicate, but also making it clear in unequivocal terms that everyone has a stake in this good.  Everyone.

At this moment, it may be difficult to imagine what that would sound like. Barack Obama’s notion of the nation as an imperfect but evolving union comes to mind as one possible foundational trope, even though it originally came from one of his campaign speeches and not the bully pulpit.[13]  It may also be true that, over time, the televised spectacle of the inauguration itself—coverage of the formal breakfast, the fancy dress balls, and even the breathiness of the news announcers pointing out who is and is not attending this time—has increasingly turned our collective attention to the ceremony as primarily a visual event rather an oratorical one.  If this is true, it could explain why Donald Trump clung so tightly to his claims about how many attendees packed onto the Capitol lawn and parade route in January, 2017. Perhaps his belief was that such imagery alone was sufficient to represent a nation united in its hopes for a new president.

Images are rhetorical, to be sure.  I began this essay by referencing the horrific images of the U.S. Capitol on the afternoon of January 6, 2021.  As haunting as those photographs and videos are, and as much as even a rhetorician like myself must concede that words cannot repair everything, words are almost always the place to start looking for both cause and effect.  Now is the moment to take seriously what presidents’ words can do.

A president’s words on Inauguration Day reveal not only what kind of president he or she will be, but they also should offer an idiom of identity the American people might imagine they can share.  In 2021, as it was in another speech given by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, it may be time to think carefully about how words may have the potential to remake America.[14] At minimum, we must consider more expansively and honestly than ever before who “we” are, who “we” have been, and how “we” can move forward if the nation is to be renewed. Does the peaceful transition of power from one U.S. president to another require that a new chief executive give an inaugural address as part of a civic ritual of renewal? No.  Does the prospect of authentic unity among the American people depend on the invocation of an expansive “us” able to imagine a common good not yet realized? Yes.


Vanessa Beasley, a Vanderbilt University alumna and expert on the history of U.S. political rhetoric, is vice provost for academic affairs, dean of residential faculty and an associate professor of communication studies. As Vice Provost and Dean of Residential Faculty, she oversees Vanderbilt’s growing Residential College System as well as the campus units that offer experiential learning inside and outside of the classroom.

Following stints on the faculty of Texas A&M University, Southern Methodist University and the University of Georgia, she returned to Vanderbilt in 2007 as a faculty member in the Department of Communication Studies. Active in the Vanderbilt community, she has served as chair of the Provost’s Task Force on Sexual Assault, director of the Program for Career Development for faculty in the College of Arts and Science, and as a Jacque Voegeli Fellow of the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities.

Beasley’s areas of academic expertise include the rhetoric of American presidents, political rhetoric on immigration, and media and politics. She is the author of numerous scholarly articles, book chapters and other publications, and is the author of two books, Who Belongs in America? Presidents, Rhetoric, and Immigration and You, the People: American National Identity in Presidential Rhetoric, 1885-2000. She was recently named president-elect of the Rhetoric Society of America, set to begin her term in July 2022.

Beasley attended Vanderbilt as an undergraduate and earned a bachelor of arts in speech communication and theatre arts. She also holds a Ph.D. in speech communication from the University of Texas at Austin.


[1] Richard Neustadt, Presidential Power and the Politics of Leadership (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1960), 11.

[2] Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Presidents Creating the Presidency: Deeds Done in Words, 2nd ed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 6.

[3] Authenticated text available at https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/inaugural-address-2.

[4] Authenticated text available at https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/people/president/george-washington

[5] Authenticated text available at https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/people/president/george-washington

[6] Authenticated text available at https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/people/president/george-washington

[7] Vanessa B. Beasley, You, The People: American National Identity in Presidential Rhetoric (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2004).

[8] Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Presidents Creating the Presidency: Deeds Done in Words, 2nd ed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

[9] Campbell and Jamieson, Presidents Creating the Presidency, 31.

[10] Authenticated text available at https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/inaugural-address-19

[11] Beasley, You, the People.

[12] Authenticated text available at https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/inaugural-address-34

[13] Authenticated text and audio available at https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=88478467

[14] Gary Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992).

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