Sunday, January 18, 2009

Some Notes on Reading The Inauguration Speeches

In reading these speeches, and thinking about what Obama might say, one of course, is drawn to “new beginnings” in the United States: inauguration speeches by Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, either Roosevelt, Kennedy or Reagan. However, the one speech I was most drawn to as an analogy to Obama’s was Woodrow Wilson’s Inaugural Speech. Just about everything I posted in the excerpt seems relevant to things going on right now, and also to things that Obama had said.

Both Wilson and Obama had been professors, and Wilson’s language was more paternalistic than Obama’s, but I was really struck by this passage:

At last a vision has been vouchsafed us of our life as a whole. We see the bad with the good, the debased and decadent with the sound and vital. With this vision we approach new affairs. Our duty is to cleanse, to reconsider, to restore, to correct the evil without impairing the good, to purify and humanize every process of our common life without weakening or sentimentalizing it. There has been something crude and heartless and unfeeling in our haste to succeed and be great. Our thought has been "Let every man look out for himself, let every generation look out for itself," while we reared giant machinery which made it impossible that any but those who stood at the levers of control should have a chance to look out for themselves.*****

I did not read any background for the speeches, except for whatever I happened to know. I think I picked up the most “famous” passages, but not always. In at least two cases, where I did know something about the speech, I deliberately left out the most famous part – in Reagan’s “Star Wars” Address (the Second Inaugural – 1985), I chose a passage which stressed racial tolerance. In Clinton’s “Bridge” Address (the Second Inaugural – 1997), I chose a passages which pleaded for bipartisan harmony.

In every instance where I had a choice, I chose the passage that concerned itself with domestic politics. Relationships between the races first (usually white-black, sometimes white-Indian, and in one extraordinary passage by Taft, white-Asian immigrant). After that I tended to focus on relationships between rich and poor (which were almost always addressed by analogy), and relationships between branches of government (references to the bitterness of partisanship begin with Jefferson and are pervasive thereafter).

Some speeches left me with no choice – they were totally concerned with foreign policies – Madison’s Second Inaugural during the War of 1812, and McKinley’s Second Inaugural in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, were interesting speeches. McKinley’s speech in particular was American Imperialism writ large (and I refuse to reduce American Imperialism to a 4-letter word), and very relevant to what is going on today.

However, the Cold War speeches left me cold. Truman’s and Eisenhower’s speeches were a real slog. Even reading JFK’s speech, in the context of the other speeches, and at the remove of history, sounded more militaristic, and less idealistic, than when I posted the speech on the 45th anniversary of Dallas.


Related to the Cold War speeches, it was surprising how little discussion of race was included in the speeches of Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy. Even LBJ only spoke of race by analogy, although he spoke of it at some length. Both Nixon, the first American President in many years to speak of the limits of government, and Reagan, the first American President in over 100 years to speak overtly of states rights in an Inauguration Speech, reminded their audiences that supporters of more limited Federal government had to understand that the Federal government would maintain an active role in ending racism.


There are many passages about race-relations in the speeches. There are overt defenses of slavery in speeches by Van Buren, Polk, Pierce and Buchanan. What else could they say? All four men owed their jobs to the Slave Power. Taylor’s less ringing endorsement of slavery served as a warning that the people who supported electing Jefferson Davis’s father-in-law as President might have made a mistake. Taylor died within 18 months.

There is Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, which is still the one you should read if you could only stand to read one.

There is McKinley in 1897 saying that he believed that the United States had finish its good work in healing the wounds between the races. There is a heart-broken Taft in 1909 lamenting how little progress had been made, and wondering exactly how to approach the future.


However, for me, the most interesting exchange was a statement made by Rutherford B. Hayes, in his 1877 Inaugural Speech. Hayes was a Republican who won an election that was a virtual tie by agreeing, in a back room, to end Reconstruction on the one hand, and a counter-statement by James Garfield, also a Republican, in 1881. Garfield was cut down by an assassin a few months later.


The evils which afflict the Southern States can only be removed or remedied by the united and harmonious efforts of both races, actuated by motives of mutual sympathy and regard; and while in duty bound and fully determined to protect the rights of all by every constitutional means at the disposal of my Administration, I am sincerely anxious to use every legitimate influence in favor of honest and efficient local self-government as the true resource of those States for the promotion of the contentment and prosperity of their citizens. In the effort I shall make to accomplish this purpose I ask the cordial cooperation of all who cherish an interest in the welfare of the country, trusting that party ties and the prejudice of race will be freely surrendered in behalf of the great purpose to be accomplished.


The elevation of the negro race from slavery to the full rights of citizenship is the most important political change we have known since the adoption of the Constitution of 1787. No thoughtful man can fail to appreciate its beneficent effect upon our institutions and people. It has freed us from the perpetual danger of war and dissolution. It has added immensely to the moral and industrial forces of our people. It has liberated the master as well as the slave from a relation which wronged and enfeebled both. It has surrendered to their own guardianship the manhood of more than 5,000,000 people, and has opened to each one of them a career of freedom and usefulness … No doubt this great change has caused serious disturbance to our Southern communities. This is to be deplored, though it was perhaps unavoidable. But those who resisted the change should remember that under our institutions there was no middle ground for the negro race between slavery and equal citizenship. There can be no permanent disfranchised peasantry in the United States. Freedom can never yield its fullness of blessings so long as the law or its administration places the smallest obstacle in the pathway of any virtuous citizen.