Presidential Inauguration Speeches Are All About Framing a Mandate

James Madison (March 4, 1813) and James Monroe (March 4, 1821):

This article is an installment in an eleven-part series on the inaugurations of incumbent presidents who were elected to additional terms in office, culminating in an on-the-ground report of Obama's second inauguration.

Madison:

The presidential election of 1812 marked several firsts, foremost among them being that it was the first American election to occur in the midst of a major war (the aptly named War of 1812). Like many of the candidates who followed him, Federalist nominee DeWitt Clinton took several stances through the course of the campaign, supporting the war effort in the South (where it was popular) and abhorring it in the North (where it was opposed). Despite this obvious flaw in his character, the controversial nature of the administration of President James Madison was such that his victory was by no means foreordained. Unlike the last two successful reelections (i.e., those of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson), the reelection of James Madison proved to be a squeaker - but, in the end, he did indeed win.

Madison himself was acutely aware of this, as made clear in the opening paragraph of his second inaugural:

About to add the solemnity of an oath to the obligations imposed by a second call to the station in which my country heretofore placed me, I find in the presence of this respectable assembly an opportunity of publicly repeating my profound sense of so distinguished a confidence and of the responsibility united with it. The impressions on me are strengthened by such an evidence that my faithful endeavors to discharge my arduous duties have been favorably estimated, and by a consideration of the momentous period at which the trust has been renewed. From the weight and magnitude now belonging to it I should be compelled to shrink if I had less reliance on the support of an enlightened and generous people, and felt less deeply a conviction that the war with a powerful nation, which forms so prominent a feature in our situation, is stamped with that justice which invites the smiles of Heaven on the means of conducting it to a successful termination.

Notice how his political victory was explicitly cast in terms of being a mandate for his war policies, so that the political and the military became inextricably entwined. Just as the 1812 presidential election was the first in which a major foreign policy crisis played a key role, Madison's victory in that contest was naturally interpreted as a vindication of his controversial wartime policies. Madison knew this as deeply and intuitively as would many of his successors.

Monroe:



James Monroe's reelection in 1820 marked the final time a presidential candidate would run unopposed and, as such, win unanimously in the Electoral College (although technically one elector cast his ballot for John Q. Adams over Monroe). Despite taking place during the midst of a major economic depression, the disintegration of the Federalist Party at the beginning of Monroe's administration had left the milquetoast Virginian without a major oppositional party throughout the duration of his term. As a result, he was free to pursue moderate policies that united the country, strengthened his political brand, and led to his tenure being dubbed the "Era of Good Feelings." Upon being inaugurated, Monroe reflected on this with a characteristic (and politically necessary) humility:

Having no pretensions to the high and commanding claims of my predecessors, whose names are so much more conspicuously identified with our Revolution, and who contributed so preeminently to promote its success, I consider myself rather as the instrument than the cause of the union which has prevailed in the late election In surmounting, in favor of my humble pretensions, the difficulties which so often produce division in like occurrences, it is obvious that other powerful causes, indicating the great strength and stability of our Union, have essentially contributed to draw you together. That these powerful causes exist, and that they are permanent, is my fixed opinion; that they may produce a like accord in all questions touching, however remotely, the liberty, prosperity and happiness of our country will always be the object of my most fervent prayers to the Supreme Author of All Good.

Unlike Jefferson and Madison, whose senses of personal triumph burst through every line of their inaugurals, Monroe made a point of seeming humble to the point of being self-effacing. Along with being a pragmatic approach in a democratic society, it also provided a valuable reassurance that the Washingtonian level of support from which Monroe had benefited would not slide into a dictatorship.