Passing the Torch

Michael Dunne reflects on past US presidential Inaugurals, and the words which still resonate.

Oscar Wilde – who else? – beat all commentators to the punch when he quipped that the ‘youth of America is their oldest tradition’, adding the knockout blow that they had ‘been going on [about it] for three hundred years’. Yet in a paradox worthy of the great raconteur himself, this eternally young country established at its birth a political system whose constitutional framework has changed far less over the last two centuries than those of major European countries such as France, Germany, Italy or the United Kingdom.

The Federal Constitution, drafted in Philadelphia in 1787, became effective with the assembling of the first Congress and the election of General George Washington as first President of the United States. On the last day of April 1789, in the temporary capital of the nascent republic, New York, Washington delivered his – and his nation’s – first Inaugural Address to ‘his fellow citizens of the Senate and House of Representatives’. On January 20th, 2009 in the federal capital which honours Washington’s name, Barack Obama, the forty-fourth President of the United States will deliver his Inaugural before the newly elected 111th Congress, his fellow citizens and, via television, radio and the internet, a global audience of hundreds of millions. The greatest ritual in the avowedly secular American political system will take place. The torch will pass.

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