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Two weeks ago, Slate and MixedInk asked readers to collaborate in creating Barack Obama’s inaugural address: writing, editing, and rating versions of the speech they’d like to see him give on Tuesday. More than 450 people participated, creating 384 speeches—most of them original but more than 100 “remixed” with words from other contributors, including the previous 43 presidents. (For more on how the process worked, see here and here.) The 1,042-word speech below, lightly edited for spelling and grammar, is the collaboration between two Slate readers known as Honu and Nick. It also borrows from Woodrow Wilson’s and Dwight Eisenhower’s inaugural adresses, as well as a speech Obama himself gave last March. It was the contest’s top-rated speech.
My fellow Americans,
Over two centuries ago, a general from Virginia was the first to take the oath I have been fortunate to repeat here today, swearing allegiance to this newborn Union.
Nearly a century later, a lawyer from Illinois swore this same oath, and then he, too, had to fight. This time, the battle was to preserve the Union, and then to perfect it by recognizing as citizens the many who had been excluded solely because of the color of their skin. A governor from New York swore this oath, and called for confidence in that Union against the perils of fear during a time of unparalleled economic crisis. A former Navy veteran from Massachusetts took this oath, and then challenged each American to ask what he or she might do for this nation.
In each generation, leaders have stepped forward and Americans have stepped up to make our union ever more perfect. Men and women have fought and worked and died to narrow the gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of our times.
The realities of today are, indeed, hard. Millions of Americans are either out of work or underemployed. Many more are uncertain whether the job they hold today will be there tomorrow. A vast number of children are still not receiving the world’s best education—not because we cannot provide it, but because they cannot afford it. And Americans of all ages are afraid to go to the hospital because of rising premiums and shrinking incomes.
But American has prevailed over much worse. We have prevailed over Depression and fascism. We have prevailed over enemies abroad and bigotry at home. And as we step up today, together, united one people, indivisible, we will prevail again.
Together, we can do anything.
If we are to pursue happiness, we must also strive to protect the happiness of others. If we are to pursue learning, we must also strive to educate. If we are to love others, we must also have the courage to protect those who love us.
Future generations of Americans will look back at this moment of crisis and opportunity and they will judge us—but not by our words. They will measure us—but not by the promises we make. For language has the power to move us to action, but it is never a substitute for it.
Our children’s children will ask only this: What did they do back then? Did they rise to the challenges providence had set before them? Did they unite as one people, with a common destiny? Did they set aside the old partisan rancor in order to protect our great nation, to strengthen democracy and human rights at home and abroad and to safeguard the blessings of the natural world for all time? Did they live up to the great promise cradled in that name: America? What will these future generations say?
They will say, “Yes, they did.”
Because, my fellow Americans, yes, we will. We embrace these challenges, all of them. Because that is where we find meaning in our lives.
Being American means we have the privilege, the right and the duty to strive for a more perfect society, not tomorrow, not next year not under the next leadership, but in our time.
In our time we can fix the bridges and rebuild the roads that the American economy might thrive far into the future.
In our time we can stop the oceans from rising, curb pollution, and protect our planet and the planet of our children.
In our time we can build new schools, hire new teachers, and stop just giving great teachers our praises and start giving them raises.
In our time we can make health care available to all Americans.
In our time we can end our addiction to oil.
In our time we can rebuild and restore the promise America holds to the world. The last best chance can once again be the best. We cannot just promote ideals without also living them. We can look leaders in the eye when we tell them not to torture because they know we do not. And when our nation or our values should be threatened, we will never back down, because our men and women in uniform will know that ours is not a nation that strives for domination or individual gain but for what is just, and so long as we hew to the side of justice, so long as we buttress the force of arms with the force of ideas, there is no enemy we cannot best and no challenge we cannot overcome.
Americans are not of one mind. We have spirited differences on every topic conceivable, and that makes us stronger. Our differences allow us to change and adapt our covenants and customs. But we must resist the partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that have gridlocked us in the past. We have our differences, but we also have our similarities. There are deep differences and good people on both sides of the abortion debate, but we can all agree we should try to prevent unintended pregnancies. We can all agree we should provide single mothers with help if they want to keep the baby. We all share one country, one promise. We are all Americans, and when that promise is not a promise to us, but also a promise by us, we make our own destiny.
So let us renew this promise. This is not an oath I can fulfill by myself. In this country we elect leaders not to rule, but to serve. But we must all serve. Let us move forward together. Let us become a better nation.
Let today be not a triumph, but a dedication. A dedication that we will work harder, go further, and persist longer so that we should make this great country even greater and leave our children a finer world than the one we entered. A dedication to join the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring, and more prosperous America.
May God bless America, and may America always prove worthy of the blessings we have received.