On Jan. 20, Joseph R. Biden, Jr. will deliver the 59th inaugural address, a tradition that began with George Washington, was denied to a handful of presidential replacements and — I’ve learned through a thorough study of the 58 other speeches — one that, like a particularly long Yom Kippur sermon, is given to a whole lot of bloviating.
Speechcraft has evolved in the two centuries since Washington held forth before a crowd at Manhattan’s Federal Hall. With its refinements have come an ebb and flow of Jewish references and sentiment from our 45 (44 if you don’t count Grover Cleveland twice) gentile Commanders in Chief. The places where these allusions come into play might surprise you. But rest assured, they begin at the very beginning.
How Anxious Were Our Presidents?
In 1789, the Father of Our Country kicked things off with that most Jewish of themes: agita.
“Among the vicissitudes incident to life no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order, and received on the 14th day of the present month,” Washington said of his elevation to the presidency.
He then discussed his decision to accept, weighing his desire to retire “on the one hand” and difficulty of the task before him “on the other hand.” That’s right, Washington pulled something a rhetorical Tevye.
Washington was far from the last to talk about anxiety. 22 other speeches addressed angst to some extent. Usually, though, the concern was the nation’s anxieties about national debt, impending Civil War or threats from abroad. Martin Van Buren’s speech used “anxiously” twice — referring to himself and “anxious” once — referring to doubters of the government’s endurance — and so he may be called our most anxious president.
Given that the word and its derivatives were retired under Nixon, along with the age of anxiety, could we say our presidents are now more self-assured? Probably not. Their speechwriters — many of whom have been Jewish — almost definitely aren’t.
Did Any Inauguration Speeches Talk About Israel?
The first and only mention of the word “Israel” in an inaugural speech referred to the ancient Jewish nation or people — and maybe to Jacob — but not the modern state.
Thomas Jefferson said that for the success of his second administration he would need “the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land, and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life.”
Jefferson wasn’t the only president to paint America in Promised Land terms. Why hasn’t contemporary Israel gotten more than an oblique mention? My guess is that it’s due to presidents getting less specific in terms of explicit policy in the modern era — they used to go on at length about the gold standard — except when they achieved something big in their first term or were setting the table for a major initiative in the second.
The first administration that made a huge breakthrough with Middle East peace — the Carter Administration — wasn’t around long enough to boast about the Camp David Accords. Clinton didn’t mention the Oslo Accords in his second inaugural (possibly because of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination after the fact). If he had been given the opportunity to deliver a second inaugural address, Trump would have probably mentioned the Abraham Accords and he might have been right to, given that it was his most substantial diplomatic achievement.
Which (Jewish) Biblical Passages Have The Presidents Quoted?
Presidents have spoken about the “sacred fire” of our liberty (Washington) or the “divine inspiration” of our founding (Warren G. Harding) or have presented America as a light unto other nations (too many to name). They have also quoted Scripture and quite a few of them have drawn from the Hebrew Bible.
John Quincy Adams quoted Psalm 127: “except the Lord keep the city the watchman waketh but in vain.”
Abe Lincoln, in his second inaugural, also liked the psalmists, stating, “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” (Psalm 19:10)
Clinton riffed on Nehemiah by saying, “May God strengthen our hands for the good work ahead.”
James A Garfield quoted Isaiah: “Let our people find a new meaning in the divine oracle which declares that ‘a little child shall lead them,’ for our own little children will soon control the destinies of the Republic.”
So did JFK, who said, re: our relationship with our enemies, “let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah—to ‘undo the heavy burdens … and to let the oppressed go free.’”
Nixon quoted Malachi 3:20, “The peace we seek to win is not victory over any other people, but the peace that comes ‘with healing in its wings.’” He was also one of the few presidents to quote at length from a poet, Archibald MacLeish, who wrote “Jews in America,” a 1936 rebuke of antisemitism. Nixon would later be caught on tape being an antisemite.
Warren G. Harding pulled from the minor prophet Micah, saying: “I have taken the solemn oath of office on that passage of Holy Writ wherein it is asked: ‘What doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?’”
Carter, a devout evangelical, took his cue from Micah, too, quoting his admonition, “He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”
As for Trump, he favored the Song of Ascents, saying “how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.” Wishful thinking.
Which Speeches Were the Most Jewish?
In my opinion — that of one who has read nearly 60 speeches — three speeches rise to the top of the heap in terms of their Jewish content.
While explicit references to Jews are few and far between (Reagan mentioned Stars of David on Arlington tombstones, George W. Bush alluded to synagogues and the “truths of Sinai” and Obama called us a “nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers”) the first inaugural speeches of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson are steeped in Jewy-ness.
Lincoln’s immortal speech in 1861 immediately broke with tradition by being essentially an extended legal argument attempting to assuage the Southern states and urge them to stay in the Union. He read from the Constitution, presented a straightforward resolution not to interfere in the rights of states and said the following:
“I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination. Continue to execute all the express provisions of our National Constitution, and the Union will endure forever, it being impossible to destroy it except by some action not provided for in the instrument itself.”
Lincoln bounded from this logical, legal exegesis to flights of high rhetoric that gave Steven Pinker book titles. Who can read that and not think that Lincoln — who some like to speculate was secretly Jewish — wouldn’t be a gifted Talmudist, or at least a popular professor at Cardozo.
The fact that Lincoln was saying he would not interfere in the South’s institution of slavery here is pretty bad. But so is the fact that Woodrow Wilson, a racist, came quite close to saying “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” when he affirmed that “Justice, and only justice, shall always be our motto,” in his own maiden inauguration speech.
FDR, in his 1933 address, said that the challenges of the Great Depression, while immense, did not meet the standards of a biblical blight.
“We are stricken by no plague of locusts,” Roosevelt said. He then went on to articulate our national challenge with a metaphor about the “temple of our civilization.”
Roosevelt appeared to be going for a Jesus thing — the money changers in the Temple who inspired Christ to start flipping tables. But Roosevelt described the “unscrupulous money changers” as those that “have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.” That’s a play on Proverbs 29:18.
The money changers having fled, “we may now restore that temple to the ancient truths,” Roosevelt vowed.
It was a reference that no doubt spoke to both his fellow Christians and to Jews, a group that would become huge backers of the New Deal. After all, the Yidden know a bit about rededicating temples.
In Roosevelt’s three more terms, he had three more chances at making Jewish references — with the help of speechwriter Samuel Rosenman. He continued with the temple reference in round two, saying how the Republic pledged itself to “drive from the temple of our ancient faith those who had profaned it.” Strong Maccabee vibes.
Ted Sorenson, whose mother was Jewish — and who probably wrote most of JFK’s “Profiles in Courage” — drafted LBJ’s 1965 inauguration speech. Debuting a day after a concert featuring violinist Isaac Stern, the address is chockablock with Jewish themes, including a section called “The American Covenant.”
“They came here—the exile and the stranger, brave but frightened— to find a place where a man could be his own man,” Johnson said of the American people. “They made a covenant with this land. Conceived in justice, written in liberty, bound in union, it was meant one day to inspire the hopes of all mankind; and it binds us still. If we keep its terms, we shall flourish.”
Johnson then outlined the articles of the Covenant, citing a commitment to justice that is betrayed — along with America — when “any citizen denies his fellow, saying, ‘His color is not mine,’ or ‘His beliefs are strange and different.’”
“The American covenant called on us to help show the way for the liberation of man,” Johnson stated, going on to say, “The judgment of God is harshest on those who are most favored.”
He also presciently affirmed that we are “fellow passengers on a dot of earth,” well before Carl Sagan coined the phrase “Pale Blue Dot.”
Johnson, whose benediction included a Houston rabbi, ended his speech saying:
“For myself, I ask only, in the words of an ancient leader: ‘Give me now wisdom and knowledge, that I may go out and come in before this people: for who can judge this thy people, that is so great?’”
That leader? Solomon. Enough said. Johnson’s ready for his haftorah.
Which Inauguration Speech Was the Least Jewish?
On March 4, 1841, William Henry Harrison delivered a nearly two-hour address on a dreary, cold winter day — without a coat or hat on.
In the speech, he professed what all his predecessors were content to imply, saying he “deem[ed] the present occasion sufficiently important and solemn to justify me in expressing to my fellow-citizens a profound reverence for the Christian religion.”
A month later, Harrison died of pneumonia. Many have attributed his presidency — our shortest — to his underdressed first address to the nation — our longest. Most scholars now believe that it is unlikely that the remarks led to his death, but if he had a Jewish mother there’d be no need for speculation. He would have worn a coat and muffler that day.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.
The Jewish history of Presidential inaugurations