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Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller administering the oath of office to Benjamin Harrison on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol, March 4, 1889

[Detail] Administering the oath of office to Benjamin Harrison, 1889.

America at War

The threat of military conflict, its actualization, and its aftermath are reflected in a number of speeches in this collection. The addresses of James Madison and Abraham Lincoln demonstrate changes in rhetoric as America moved from the brink of war into full-scale combat in both the War of 1812 and in the Civil War. The emphasis on maintaining peace in both men's first inaugural addresses (Madison in 1809 and Lincoln in 1861) is contrasted by their discussions of the causes of the conflicts and calls for resolution in their second addresses (Madison in 1813, Lincoln in 1865).

In the wake of World War I, Herbert Hoover's 1929 inaugural address noted the “virility and strength” of the nation, while Franklin Roosevelt's inaugural addresses in the midst of World War II (1941 and 1945) described the external disruption to the nation, calling the war “a test of our courage--of our resolve--of our wisdom--our essential democracy.” This idea of war as a test of personal resolve was reintroduced in light of the conflict in Vietnam during Richard Nixon's 1969 inaugural address:

We are caught in war, wanting peace. We are torn by division, wanting unity. . . .

To a crisis of the spirit, we need an answer of the spirit.

To find that answer, we need only look within ourselves.

  • How do the presidents describe these military conflicts?
  • How do the events surrounding each war contribute to a president's account and the public's understanding of the conflict?
  • How does a president call upon the public to respond to a war?
  • Do these presidents discuss any of the dangers associated with the wars? How is this topic approached?
  • Do they mention any potential benefits to military force? Why or why not?

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