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The Five Worst Inaugural Addresses of the 19th Century

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Thomas Jefferson's Second Inaugural Address Was Angry and Bitter
Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images

In picking the Five Worst Inaugural Addresses of the 1800s, we can begin with a president who also gave one of the best inaugural addresses, the one that began the 19th century.

On March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson delivered a beautiful speech that sought to unite the country after the bruising political campaign and disputed election of 1800.

Four years later, Jefferson returned to the US Senate chamber in the Capitol to give his second inaugural address. One observer claimed that Jefferson barely raised his voice, and seemed to mumble through much of his address.

Some of the text was peculiarly bitter. Four years living in the new Executive Mansion (it was not yet called the White House) had convinced Jefferson that he had many enemies. He was not entirely wrong. Rumors that Jefferson had fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings had been circulating in the newspapers for two or three years.

An exasperated Jefferson, on March 4, 1805, used the occasion of an inaugural address to chastise the newspapers: "During this course of administration, and in order to disturb it, the artillery of the press has been leveled against us, charged with whatsoever its licentiousness could devise or dare."

Displaying some moderation, Jefferson also suggested it would be wrong to crack down on the press by passing legislation to muzzle newspapers (which his predecessor, John Adams, had attempted). He optimistically claimed, "the public judgment will correct false reasonings and opinions."

Anyone alive today is used to hearing presidents complain about newspapers. But it's remarkable to read an inaugural address delivered by Thomas Jefferson and see such complaints expressed more than two centuries ago.

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