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[Detail] Thomas Jefferson

Historical Comprehension: Evidencing Historical Perspectives

The inaugural address—the speech a President gives following his swearing-in—is an important opportunity for the newly inaugurated leader to share his or her views with supporters and opponents alike. Some very famous quotations come from inaugural addresses: think of John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” or Abraham Lincoln’s “With malice toward none, with charity toward all.” While many presidents emphasize the nation’s shared democratic principles, events of the time also influence what the president says.

Examine Jefferson’s first and second inaugural addresses. (Note that both are available in transcription.) Think about the events occurring at the time of each inauguration as you read the addresses.

  • What was the main focus of Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address? Why do you think Jefferson chose this focus?
  • To what extent did the First Inaugural Address respond to the bitter partisan conflicts in the election of 1800?
  • What was Jefferson’s emphasis in his Second Inaugural Address? Why do you think Jefferson chose this focus to launch his second term?
  • How are the two addresses similar? How are they different? Discuss how the context in which each was delivered accounts for the differences.
  • Find a passage in one of Jefferson’s inaugural addresses that you find particularly inspiring or insightful. Create a poster that conveys the passage visually. Be sure to include the passage itself somewhere on your poster. Why do you think this passage remains meaningful in today’s historical context?