Fall 2008

Our Speeches

Thomas Jefferson's First Inaugural Address, 1801

Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, 1865

Susan B. Anthony's Speech after her vote, 1872

Mother Jones at the West Virginia State Capitol, 1912

Franklin Delano Roosevelt 's Fireside Chat, 1833

Martin Luther King's "Mountaintop Speech"

John Kennedy's Inaugural Address

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Thomas Jefferson's First Inaugural Address

The election of 1800 was the first election in the history of the United States in which the presidential office changed from one party to another. It had been a bitter, divisive contest between Jefferson's Democratic Republicans and John Adams' Federalists. Jefferson's party believed in a small responsibility for the federal government. Adam's party was split, but the dominant voice (Alexander Hamilton's) had spoken for a strong federal responsibility in developing the economy. The anxiety in the country was not so much about the issues that divided the parties, it was whether the nation would continue to be one nation or be divided over the election. Inaugural day was March 4, 1801. Jefferson delivered his speech in the Senate chamber.

Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address

Sixty four years later, March 4, 1865. The Civil War would end in five weeks. Lincoln would be dead in six. That the war could not last much longer was obvious as Lincoln spoke; that it would end within five weeks was not. Lincoln's election had been in doubt until shortly before election day, November 7, 1864. Lincoln's opponent was former General George B. McClellan whose platform called for an end to the war on whatever terms the Confederacy would offer. Sherman's success on the battlefield and a liberal policy to let soldiers from the army (who overwhelmingly favored Lincoln) go home to vote carried Lincoln to victory in the election. Now four months later, the anxiety was still over the war with other issues on the horizon. Would the end of the war bring the end of fighting and bitterness? Would the Confederates take to the hills and carry on terrorist, guerrilla strategies? How should those who the North saw as causing so much death and carnage be treated? This war would bring a thin patina of celebration and a huge anxiety about the future of the country. Lincoln delivered the speech on the East front of the Capitol, the side which today faces the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court.

Susan B. Anthony's Speech After Voting, 1872

It was nearly three decades since Anthony and others had convened at Seneca Falls, NY, to declare their commitment to women's rights. Despite the strength of the reform movements of the 1840s and 1850s that had been instrumental in freeing the slaves through a Civil War, women had not achieved the same legal status as the freed slave. Indeed, the amendment enfranchising the freedman had for the first time introduced the word "male" into the constitution to define rights. So, in the election of 1872, Susan B. Anthony engaged in civil disobedience, she voted. Anthony was charged with violating the laws governing elections. Before her trial began, Anthony embarked on a speaking tour through upstate New York, explaining her actions in a speech declaring her right to vote.

Mother Jones at the West Virginia State Capitol

Following the Civil War the tensions that threatened the peace of the country revolved around the rapid growth of industrialization. Huge factories became the center of this industrialization. Their task was to convert raw materials into mass produced products available to a new class of Americans: consumers. Factories required people, but often those people were seen as just another element of the process of production. Production took a front seat to the workers' safety, health, and families. Indeed, workers were often compelled by circumstances or the terms of employment to live in company towns, to buy food, clothing, and pay rent to the company they worked for at whatever prices the company wished to charge. The expenses for these purchases at the company store were taken out of the paycheck. If you didn't like the arrangement there were always others, immigrants from Europe or the American South, who would be happy to take your job on the company's terms.

Workers began to band together to try to respond to these conditions. Their major weapons were the protest and the strike. They faced massive intimidation, however. The companies hired armed men and set them upon strikers. Even an attempt to organize your fellow workers could result in your being fired. And since you lived in a house provided by the company, loss of the job meant not only loss of income but that you would be homeless. The task of movement leaders was to motivate the workers to band together for joint action in the face of such tactics by the companies.

One of the most dangerous places to work in the United States was in the coal mines. Coal mining was an underground profession in those days, conducted with a pick and bucket. Cave-ins and explosions of methane, released from the ground in mining, made the profession exceedingly dangerous. A seemingly inexhaustible supply of immigrants and farmers displaced by the poor and exhausted land they were trying to farm depressed wages in the mine. And since the mines were more likely in rural areas, the company town was a mainstay of mining.

Mother Jones came to the leadership of miners late in life. But it was to be a long life. It seemed that everywhere a strike was on or miners were embattled, Mother Jones was there, urging the miners to organize to better their conditions. One of these times was in April 1912. The operators in the Kanawha coal field in West Virginia refused to renew the contract with union miners. The miners struck. Most of the companies settled, but those on Paint Creek held out. The mine owners brought in several hundred guards from a detective agency to protect the mines. They evicted striking miners from company towns and the miners set up a tent city. Violent clashes between miners and guards increased with at least fifty killed. On the sixth of September, Mother Jones led a march on the state capital in Charleston. She spoke there.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Fireside Chat

By 1932, the United States was in the midst of the greatest economic depression the country had ever seen. One of every four working age Americans was unemployed. Factories were closed everywhere from the 47 percent decrease in industrial production from 1928. Nearly 4,000 banks were nearing failure with all deposits of ordinary Americans to be lost since there was no deposit insurance. Herbert Hoover, the president, believed that the government's options to help with the problem were few. He believed it was the responsibility of leaders in the economy to correct the situation. He believed that the economy would need to right itself. As Roosevelt took office bank failures were at their worst. Roosevelt delivered his Inaugural Address where he told the country that "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" and promised to assert his leadership "of the great army of the people" to deal with the depression. He ordered all banks in the country to close. Then, he gave his first fireside chat, a radio address in which he spoke of the banking crisis and his actions to deal with it.

Martin Luther King's "Mountaintop Speech"

By 1968, the March on Washington was five years in the past. Important legislation has passed the Congress enforcing laws giving access to the ballot to African Americans as well as Euro Americans. Schools were beginning to desegregate. Public accommodations such as lunch counters and bus stops across the South were beginning to be open to all. Martin Luther King had expanded his crusade from a narrow focus on Civil Rights. He had spoken out against the Vietnam War, a controversial thing for his to do with many saying he should keep his focus where he was unquestionably a leader -- Civil Rights. Now he was pushing for economic justice. A Poor People's March to Washington was in the works and King was in Memphis, Tennessee, supporting garbage workers, predominantly African American, who were striking against the city. King was extremely tired from his hectic schedule and the tension created by the threats of violence against the strikers. The next day he would be killed. On March 3, 1968, King gave his last speech in Mason Temple, a church in Memphis.

John Kennedy's Inaugural Address

When John Kennedy took office, the youngest elected president was replacing the oldest president. This was a change of generations. Kennedy had to define the significance of that change, the continuities, and the discontinuities. He had to convert the circumstance into the political power to achieve his goals. The speech was delivered on January 20, 1961, on the east steps of the capital building.