THOMAS JEFFERSON, FIRST INAUGURAL ADDRESS (4 MARCH 1801)
- How important are inaugural addresses to contemporary American politics? What purposes do they serve? What do you remember about the inaugural addresses you’ve seen or read, and what do you feel makes an inaugural address memorable?
- Jefferson spent the first paragraph of his First Inaugural Address expressing his humility, even suggesting that the task was beyond his talents and that he approached the job with anxiety. Do you think this was a sincere concern or a rhetorical strategy? Why do you think he spent so much time expressing humility? As a rhetorical strategy, would this be effective in modern inaugural addresses? Why or why not? Is it prudent for modern political leaders to ask for help and encouragement, as Jefferson did?
- One of the most important lines in Jefferson’s First Inaugural was: “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” Research the differences between these two major political parties in the early 1800s. What issues defined and divided the parties of that day? What do you think Jefferson meant by this famous statement, and why did he say it?
- In his First Inaugural, Jefferson declared that religious intolerance had been banished “from our land.” Was that really true in 1800, or were only certain religions tolerated? Research Jefferson’s religious background and discuss why he thought it important to emphasize religious tolerance in his First Inaugural.
- Jefferson argued that the nation should have “honest friendship” with all nations but “entangling alliances with none.” Research what Jefferson meant by entangling alliances. And why did he emphasize that issue in his First Inaugural? What would Jefferson think about today’s alliances, like the Organization of American States (OAS) or NATO? Would he consider those “entangling alliances”?
- Some trace the modern-day Democratic Party to Jefferson’s Republicans, although clearly there are both similarities and differences. What similarities do you see between Jefferson’s Republicans and today’s Democrats? Would Jefferson also approve of some of the ideas now championed by Republicans?
- In the second paragraph of his First Inaugural, Jefferson emphasized the importance of unity, creating common ground, and harmony. Why would he spend so much of his speech on these ideas? Do you think that it is important for modern presidents to emphasize unity after a contentious campaign?
- Continuing with the theme of unity, compare Jefferson’s First Inaugural with both Donald Trump’s and Joe Biden’s inaugural addresses. Do Trump or Biden try to create unity after contentious elections? Find specific examples of Trump and/or Biden using unifying or divisive language.
- Does Jefferson’s theme of religious tolerance still resonate today? Is it still an important issue in presidential rhetoric today? Can you think of any recent presidents who have emphasized religious tolerance, and what incidents, controversies, or problems have raised the issue of religious tolerance in recent years?