Inaugural addresses are not required by the Constitution, but they have been a presidential tradition.
George Washington made a speech when he took the oath of office on April 30, 1789, in New York City. Since then, every president who has had an inaugural ceremony has given a speech.
According to the White House Historical Association, the average inaugural address has been 2,337 words.
Some have been memorable. But as historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once observed, “The platitude quotient tends to be high, the rhetoric stately and self-serving, the ritual obsessive, and the surprises few.”
Former President George W. Bush was more explicit. After listening to Donald Trump’s inaugural address in 2017, Bush observed, “That was some weird (expletive).”
With that in mind, here is some inaugural address trivia, from the weird to the wonderful.
1. Shortest address: In 1793, George Washington spoke just 135 words after being sworn in for his second term as the nation’s first president, according to Yale University’s Avalon Project, which catalogs documents in law, history and diplomacy. The next shortest was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fourth address on January 20, 1945, at just 559 words. Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address clocked in at 698 words, nearly 3,000 fewer than his first speech in March 1861.
2. Longest sentence: If you add the words from Washington’s second address and Roosevelt’s fourth, they still would be less than the longest sentence in inauguration address history. According to the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, John Adams’ inaugural address, which totaled 2,308 words, contained the longest sentence, at 727 words. The sentence contains 60 commas, 17 semicolons — and one period.
3. Longest address: Hands down, it belongs to William Henry Harrison. The ninth president refused to wear a hat and coat on a bitterly cold, wet day. He then delivered a 1-hour, 45-minute speech that covered 8,445 words. Harrison then attended several inaugural balls, apparently without changing into dry clothes. He caught a cold that later developed into pneumonia and died just 30 days into his term, the first president to die in office. According to the White House, Daniel Webster edited Harrison’s speech and even made some deletions, bragging that he had killed “17 Roman proconsuls as dead as smelts, every one of them.”
4. Funniest line: Words matter. According to presidential historian Paul Boller, there is no single funny line in an inaugural address. However, Brittanica notes that in 1837, Martin Van Buren made the audience laugh when he inadvertently said, “Unlike all who have preceded me, the Revolution that gave us existence as one people was achieved at the period of my birth; and whilst I contemplate with grateful reverence that memorable event, I feel that I belong to a later age and that I may not expect my countrymen to weigh my actions with the same kind and partial hand.” Van Buren meant that he revered the American Revolution; however, the juxtaposition of words made it sound like the eighth president was revering his own birth.
5. Advances in technology: According to the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, the transmission of inaugural addresses have kept up with the times. Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address was published in a newspaper, as it was carried by the National Intelligencer. In 1849, James K. Polk’s speech was transmitted by telegraph. In 1921, Warren G. Harding’s speech was amplified by loudspeakers. Four years later, Calvin Coolidge’s address was the first broadcast over the radio. Herbert Hoover’s speech in 1929 was the first to be recorded on newsreel. Twenty years later, Harry S. Truman gave the first address broadcast on television. In 1997, Bill Clinton’s second inaugural address was broadcast live through the internet.
6. Graphic description: As University of Michigan professor Kenneth Lowande noted in 2017, “history has not been kind to James Buchanan.” The New York Times, in featuring Buchanan’s address on its front page, paired it with an article headlined “Narrow Escape of the President Elect from a Violent Death.” According to Lowande, writing for the Miller Project, the sidebar article included less than flattering details about Buchanan suffering from diarrhea, a side effect caused by accidental arsenic poisoning.
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