27 January 2013

Speeches Making History

East Coast 2008370
The Constitution of the United States
of America.
Photo: Jen Baldwin, 2008.
We just experienced another moment in history. The inauguration of Barack Obama, for the second term, as President of the United States of America.

This morning, I was reminded of the history of all of the Presidents, and the moments in time that have been remembered since, captured in their inaugural speeches. I sat and listened as a community group were lightheartedly quizzed on which speech excerpt belonged to which President. I will take a moment to pat myself on the back; I got all five of them right. (Of course, folks like Lincoln, FDR and JFK were easy to recognize.)

The variety of guesses being contributed reminded me that not everyone enjoys soaking up all these little tidbits of history. My friend sitting next to me even had “that look” on her face (addressed towards me): did you just consume a high school history book? Someone else commented that he “remembered” the speech from George Washington (which got us all laughing, because he’s an older gentleman), then clarified that he had to memorize it during his own secondary education years.

What’s my point?

Presidential speeches are a reflection of that era in our countries history, and an amazing way to put context into the life of our ancestors.

Try it. Look at Lincoln’s speech, in which he directly addresses Civil War and “coming together” as a nation. His first term began in 1861 and his second in 1865… Where were your family members? What was the social climate in their lives? Were they far enough away from the border states to have peace in the early period of his Presidency? Were they right in the middle of the unfolding drama?

Were there other years that made a huge impact on the history of your family?  Perhaps you had a ggggrandfather “go west” to Ohio or Missouri in the early 1800s, and that resulted in several generations of now native Ohioans?  What was the motivation for the original move? Clues may be waiting for you in the list of speeches.

You can find a complete list of Presidents, their term years and their transcribed speeches on The Avalon Project website, part of the Yale Law School Lillian Goldman Law Library. The page is entitled, “The Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents.”

I will challenge you to go through this exercise,  you may learn a thing or two about an ancestor. If nothing else, you will get a chance to read some incredibly well written speeches of the state of the affairs in the United States. Leave a comment, let me know what you discover.

East Coast 2008346
Author at the National Mall, 2008.
Photo Credit: Jeff Baldwin