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Inaugural Addresses Reveal Challenging Moments in American History

When Barack Obama speaks to the nation as the first African American President on Tuesday, people around the world will be listening to his inaugural message. Over the years, some of the most memorable inauguration speeches have been delivered by presidents who were taking office during a time of crisis. The words from many of those inaugural addresses still resonate today.

President George Washington gave the first inaugural address 220 years ago. In this reading from the speech he delivered to a rapt audience in New York City, Washington's words marked the dawn of the new nation and its enduring experiment with democratic government.

"The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment  entrusted to the hands of the American people," said George Washington.

President Abraham Lincoln wrote what is acknowledged to be one of the most memorable inaugural addresses in the nation's history. In this reading of his words delivered in 1865 at the end of Civil War, Lincoln focused on the need to heal wounds and reunite a nation shattered by a conflict in which more Americans died than in all other U.S. wars - past and present.  

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting  peace among ourselves and with all nations," said Abraham Lincoln.

Nearly 70 years later, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, thrust into the presidency during the Great Depression, addressed the nation by radio. The speech, heard around the country, promised a "New Deal" for Americans suffering through the unparalleled economic downturn, and in one of its most famous passages, boosted the spirits of a nation gripped with fear.

"This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper," said Roosevelt. "So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Years later, in 1961, at the height of the Cold War, a youthful President John F. Kennedy used his inaugural address to issue a spirited call to national service that inspired a generation.

"In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger," said Kennedy. "I do not shrink from this responsibility - I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it-and the glow from that fire can truly light the world. And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country."

In a fitting tribute to President Kennedy's call, President-elect Obama on Monday helped with a community service project in Washington.  Mr. Obama also is known to be an admirer of President Lincoln. As part of the events leading up to his inauguration, he recreated Lincoln's journey by train from Philadelphia to Washington and addressed a crowd in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

Conflict and uncertainty have been the backdrop for many great inaugural addresses in U.S. history. And as Mr. Obama gives his opening speech as the first black president, he will address a nation unsettled by war and economic turmoil and anxious to hear from the man they have chosen to lead the country.

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