After this astounding flight of theological humility, Lincoln ended his remarks with another great statement of conciliation, urging his fellow Americans, North and South, to act "with malice toward none, with charity for all." Good advice, that, for civil wars and culture wars alike.
3. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first inaugural (1933)
Like Jefferson and Lincoln, FDR delivered his first inaugural address in a moment of crisis, though this time the crisis was economic rather than political or military. In an era before food stamps and Social Security, the Great Depression had put two out of every five Americans out of work. Farm prices were collapsing. Factories were closing. The banking system was convulsing. The stock market was crashing.
Into this grim situation FDR delivered hope.
"This is a national consecration," he began, and then got right to the point: "So, first of all, let me assert my belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."
Strictly speaking, this sentiment makes no sense. Fear itself aside, there is always plenty to fear. But Roosevelt struck the right chord for the moment, and his reassuring words paved the way for the massive overhaul of the federal government now known as the New Deal.
4. John F. Kennedy's inaugural address (1961)
John F. Kennedy's first and only inaugural was a Cold War speech that barely mentioned domestic policy. It takes us back to a time when the lines between liberals and conservatives were harder to draw -- when an upstart Massachusetts Democrat like Kennedy could run to the right of the sitting Republican president and war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower on foreign policy.
It also recalls an era when presidents would actually call for sacrifice. Today politicians tell us what our country can do for us, or they demand that our country leave us alone. Kennedy told us to put the interests of the nation above region, party, and even self.
"Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country," he said, in a line that inspired a generation to enter into the newly formed Peace Corps and other forms of public service. In a less known but equally apropos line he said, "Civility is not a sign of weakness. ... Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us."