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Our View: Today’s challenges in words from the past

Today’s challenges reflected in the past

Today our nation will inaugurate Joseph R. Biden Jr. as the 46th president of the United States.

We thought this might be a good time to review some of the 45 previous presidents’ inaugural speeches. The Avalon Project at the Yale Law School Lillian Goldman Law Library makes this a simple (and fascinating) online undertaking we highly recommend.

The quotes we’ve chosen might have been written for today:

“The magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most experienced of her citizens a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications, could not but overwhelm with despondence one who ... ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies.” George Washington, 1789

“Our relations with the other powers of the world are important; but still more important are our relations among ourselves. ... Our forefathers faced certain perils which we have outgrown. We now face other perils, the very existence of which it was impossible that they should foresee. ... If we fail, the cause of free self-government throughout the world will rock to its foundations, and therefore our responsibility is heavy, to ourselves, to the world as it is today, and to the generations yet unborn.” Theodore Roosevelt, 1905

“The destiny of America was proclaimed in words of prophecy spoken by our first president in his first inaugural in 1789 – words almost directed, it would seem, to this year: ‘The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered … deeply ... finally, staked on the experiment intrusted to the hands of the American people.’ If we lose that sacred fire – if we let it be smothered with doubt and fear – then we shall reject the destiny which Washington strove so valiantly and so triumphantly to establish. ... In the face of great perils never before encountered, our strong purpose is to protect and to perpetuate the integrity of democracy. For this we muster the spirit of America, and the faith of America.” Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1941

“So let us begin anew – remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.” John F. Kennedy, 1961

“No man can be fully free while his neighbor is not. To go forward at all is to go forward together. This means black and white together, as one nation, not two. ... What remains is to give life to what is in the law: to ensure at last that as all are born equal in dignity before God, all are born equal in dignity before man. ...

“Let us take as our goal: where peace is unknown, make it welcome; where peace is fragile, make it strong; where peace is temporary, make it permanent.” Richard M. Nixon, 1969

“This is the journey we continue today. ... The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. ... All this we can do. And all this we will do.” Barack Obama, 2009

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