President Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, near the end of the Civil War. Lincoln invited Black Americans to participate in the 1865 inaugural parade for the first time, two years after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. via Library of Congress
For a Google doc version of this lesson, click here. (Note: You will need to make a copy of the Google doc to edit it.)
The inaugural address is an important civic tradition that marks the transfer of power in American democracy. Some have called it a “high holiday” of the American “civic religion,” celebrating some of the most important traditions of democracy. In this lesson, students explore this history and significance of the inaugural address and then write their own short address, mixing chosen themes and inspirational quotes.
U.S. History, U.S. Government, Civics
One 50-minute class period
- Students will examine the elements of the presidential inauguration ceremony and understand the importance of the ceremony as a political norm and tradition.
- Students will research historic inaugural addresses and gain perspectives from presidential historians about the importance of the inaugural address and ceremony.
- Students will synthesize information about inaugural ceremonies and historical perspective and address the importance of national unity.
Warm-up Activities: Think, write and share with a partner (if your class is virtual, form breakout rooms). Have students write a response to at least one of their partners’ thoughts. You can use this Google Doc worksheet for responses. (Let your students know they’ll need to make a copy of the document, so they can add their names, and input their answers. (See top left of the screen → Go to File → Make Copy)
- What is the importance of the presidential inauguration ceremony towards the peaceful transition of power?
- Why is it important for elected members of the federal government and former presidents to attend the Presidential Inauguration?
Have your students watch the videos and answer the questions below. You can use the Google Doc worksheet for responses. (Let your students know they’ll need to make a copy of the document, so they can add their names, and input their answers. (See top left of the screen → Go to File → Make Copy)
Video #1 — Historical Views on a Holy Day in Our Civic Religion (Clip from PBS NewsHour — 1/20/13, on the 57th Presidential Inauguration)
Video #2 — Iconic inaugural addresses, from Thomas Jefferson to Barack Obama (Clip from PBS NewsHour — 1/17/17)
Create your own inaugural address
George Washington’s second inaugural address was only 135 words, so you don’t need to write a 20-page speech.
- What are 2-3 themes (such as “national unity,” a theme of Biden’s address) that you would want to address if you were being sworn in as president of the United States?
- What are 2-3 inspirational quotes that you would want to include in an inaugural address if you were being sworn in as president of the United States?
- Take a swing at presidential speech writing. Write between 100-500 words of an inaugural address using themes and inspirational quotes that you chose. Good luck!
Extension activity: Run an inaugural ceremony in your classroom. The teacher or a student in class can serve as the chief justice of the United States and administer the oath of office to a student that has been elected president of the United States.
Article II, Section I of the United States Constitution — “I (state your name) do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Once the oath has been administered, have the new president deliver the inaugural address that they wrote as a part of this lesson.
- Optional: Send your speech to PBS NewsHour EXTRA! We would love to read your speech and share it with others over social media. You can email it to us directly or have your teacher tag @NewsHourEXTRA and use the hashtag #PBSInaugurationSpeech.
Ryan Werenka has taught Social Studies at Troy High School in Troy, Michigan, for over twenty years. Ryan teaches AP U.S. Government and Politics, AP Comparative Government and Politics, and Government and Civics. Ryan has a Bachelor’s Degree in History and Social Sciences from Western Michigan University and a Master’s Degree in the Art of Teaching from Marygrove College.
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