On January 20, 2021, Joseph R. Biden will address the nation following his inauguration as the 46th president of the United States. President Biden’s inaugural address takes place at a time of national crisis, as Americans continue to experience the deadly effects of the global Covid-19 pandemic and remain shocked by the recent invasion of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., by a mob of self-proclaimed supporters of President Trump seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. 

This is not the first time in U.S. history that a president will deliver an inaugural address with the nation mired in crisis. Since George Washington’s inauguration over two hundred and forty years ago, U.S. presidents have delivered inaugural addresses with the country in the depths of war, facing devastating economic depressions, and reeling from social divisions. Whether in good times or in bad, U.S. presidents have used their inaugural addresses to reflect on the nation’s past and lay out their vision for the nation’s future.

In this lesson, students will read or view past presidential inaugural addresses, analyze their main messages, and discuss their visions for the country’s future. Students will then view and analyze President Biden’s inaugural address, discuss their findings as a class, express their own views on the issues raised in the address, and, finally, reflect on the purpose and meaning of presidential inaugural addresses.

Objectives

Students will:

  • Explore significant moments in selected historical inaugural addresses and identify important themes, continuities, and discontinuities.
  • Identify and record themes and ideas in President Joseph R. Biden’s inaugural address.
  • Assess the social and political implications of the speech with classmates.
  • Consider their own role in U.S. democracy.

Resources

Interactive Timeline: Historical Inaugural Addresses

Graphic Organizer: Historical Addresses

Graphic Organizer: President Biden’s Address

Handout: A Letter to the President

Note: This activity requires internet access.

Note on Remote Learning

This lesson can be completed in a remote learning environment. We recommend doing a class video session to introduce the activity, and using a virtual whiteboard to record students’ brainstorming ideas. Students can review the timeline and fill in their assigned section of “Graphic Organizer: Historical Addresses” on their own. Alternatively, you may wish to have students complete their assigned section of the organizer in pairs or small groups by using group chat sessions or virtual hangouts. A class video session to share student findings, introduce “Graphic Organizer: President Biden’s Address,” and brainstorm topics is recommended. Finally, instructors can lead a virtual class discussion to conclude the lesson after students have watched Biden’s address.

In the Classroom

1. Introduction—History of the Inaugural Address

Write the words “Inaugural Address” on the board. Invite students to come up to the board and write down any words, phrases, or questions that come to mind. Encourage students to add to the ideas of their classmates. What sorts of themes do students notice? What types of questions did students have about the inaugural address or inauguration day? What do students think the purpose of the inaugural address is? Tell students that they will explore the significance of inaugural addresses by analyzing historical addresses as well as President Biden’s address.

2. Historical Inaugural Addresses

Break the class into groups of two or three. Distribute “Graphic Organizer: Historical Addresses” to each student. Direct students to the interactive timeline. Depending on the amount of time available, assign each group one or two of the presidential speeches and have them fill in the graphic organizer. The first two entries on the timeline, Washington and Lincoln, contain short texts of the addresses. Subsequent entries include video clips of addresses, averaging 15-20 minutes each. We recommend assigning one group to the pair of Washington and Lincoln’s addresses, and all other groups to just one video address each. 

Note: Assigning numerous small groups to play videos simultaneously in a classroom can be challenging. If possible, we recommend allowing groups to spread out or view the videos individually while using headphones.

Have students report back to the class on their assigned inaugural address(es). Tell students to record information from the other groups’ reports on their graphic organizer. After all the group reports, ask students if they notice important similarities or differences across the various presidents’ inaugural addresses.

3. Previewing the President’s Address

Tell students that they will be watching President Joseph R. Biden’s inaugural address given on January 20, 2021.

Distribute “Graphic Organizer: President Biden’s Address.” Ask the class to brainstorm topics about which they suspect the president may speak. If needed, prompt students to discuss recent topics such as the Covid-19 pandemic and economic crisis, the Black Lives Matter movement, the contested 2020 presidential election, and the pro-Trump mob invasion of the Capitol. What do students think will be the overarching message? What themes or issues do they think will be important? Have students explain their reasoning. Students should record their answer to the first question about President Biden’s overarching message on their graphic organizer. Inform students that as they watch the inaugural address, they should continue to fill in their graphic organizer. Watch the inaugural address as a class or assign it for homework.

4. Making Connections

Have students refer to their graphic organizer and present their findings to the class. What do students think was the main message of the speech? Are students familiar with any of President Joseph R. Biden’s positions throughout his presidential campaign? If so, did President Biden address these positions in his inaugural address? Did President Biden speak to the topics that students brainstormed earlier? If so, how did he address them? If not, brainstorm why that might be. How did Biden address recent crises and challenges, such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the storming of the Capitol building? Did Biden make any points that students agreed or disagreed with? Ask students to explain their reasoning. Do students have any other reactions to what Biden said? What policies do students think will be most important over the next four years? What role do students think they might be able to play to advocate for policies they hope to see enacted? Did students notice any important similarities or differences between Biden’s speech and past presidents’ speeches? If so, what? 

Finally, ask students to reflect on the purpose and meaning of inaugural addresses throughout U.S. history as well as today. For example: What do students think inaugural addresses are meant to accomplish? What do inaugural addresses reveal about the presidents who deliver them? What do inaugural addresses reveal about how presidents view the office of the presidency or their role in the American political system? Do students think it is important for Americans to view their presidents’ inaugural addresses? Why or why not?

Extra Challenge

Tell students that, throughout history, many presidents have spent time reading letters from Americans everyday and even responding to some. Distribute the handout “A Letter to the President” to the class. Have students write a letter to the president about some aspect of his inaugural address. Students can mail their letters to the president or submit their message on the White House website.

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