For Second Inaugurals, Lincoln Set Standard
He first wrote out his speech in longhand. He had it printed and then cut the text into 27 snippets that he pasted on a sheet of paper. He changed three words and added 15 commas and semicolons.
Then the author, Abraham Lincoln, took the paper to the East Front of the U.S. Capitol and, on March 4, 1865, delivered one of the greatest speeches in American history: his majestic second inaugural address.
“With malice toward none; with charity for all,” he said that day near the close of the Civil War, “… 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 ...”
Those words are now carved in stone at the Lincoln Memorial.
No other second inaugural address — and there have been 15 others — has achieved the renown that Lincoln’s has, though they have touched on serious events of state: war, economic crisis and disaster.
President Obama is slated to deliver his tomorrow. Can he — did the others — come close to matching Lincoln?
How about President Andrew Jackson?
Angered by South Carolina’s efforts to nullify federal laws, he delivered an impassioned defense of the Union on March 4, 1833 — almost three decades before the Civil War. With disunion, “we shall see … our sons made soldiers to deluge with blood the fields they now till in peace,” he warned. “The loss of liberty, of all good government, of peace, plenty, and happiness, must inevitably follow a dissolution of the Union.”
Or Ulysses S. Grant?
The cigar-smoking general who had led the Union to victory over the Confederacy spoke of civil rights at his second inaugural in 1873 — nearly a century before it became a rallying cry in the 1950s and ’60s.
“The effects of the late civil strife have been to free the slave and make him a citizen,” Grant said. “Yet he is not possessed of the civil rights which citizenship should carry. … This is wrong, and should be corrected. To this correction I stand committed.”
Woodrow Wilson, on March 5, 1917, tried to prepare the nation for its entry into World War I just over a month later. “We are provincials no longer,” he said. “The tragic events of the thirty months of vital turmoil through which we have just passed have made us citizens of the world. There can be no turning back.”
And Franklin D. Roosevelt began his second term, in 1937, as the country struggled to emerge from the Great Depression. “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much,” he told a rain-drenched crowd. “It is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
Although none of them may reach the heights of Lincoln’s, these addresses, and many others, are fervent and vivid echoes of their times. Some are short; George Washington’s was two paragraphs. Others — including Ronald Reagan’s, Bill Clinton’s and Grover Cleveland’s — are relatively long.
Lincoln’s was a mere 701 words, 505 of them containing one syllable, according to Ronald C. White Jr., author of a book about the address. “Lincoln showed you, you need to keep it short,” said Donald Ritchie, the historian of the U.S. Senate, “if they’re going to inscribe it on the walls of your monument.”
“Second-term inaugurations are thinking toward history,” he said. “They’re thinking toward the future: ‘How am I going to be remembered. … This is the image I want to be remembered for.’ ”
“In the first term, the main thing is they’re starting out, starting anew,” Ritchie said. “They want everybody to follow after them. … The second time around, they’ve reached the top of the mountain.” He also noted how few presidents get a second term. And White said that most second inaugural addresses are forgotten.
A few seek to settle scores.
“During the course of this administration … the artillery of the press has been leveled against us, charged with whatsoever its licentiousness could devise or dare,” Jefferson wrote. “These abuses of an institution so important to freedom and science are deeply to be regretted.”
Ritchie, the Senate historian, said Jefferson had suffered nasty personal attacks in the newspapers and “was probably sensitive to that.”
A harried Grant wrote that he couldn’t wait to be released from the duties of high office, which he felt he had performed honorably. But he was grateful to voters for the “vindication” that came with his re-election. “I have been the subject of abuse and slander scarcely ever equaled in political history,” he said, “which today I feel that I can afford to disregard in view of your verdict.”
Grant gets more credit from historians these days, Ritchie said. “He did stand for civil rights,” he said. “It’s after his presidency that the federal government gives up on reconstruction, and you enter this century of segregation. … Grant stayed true to the causes of the Civil War.”
It is that war and Lincoln’s meditation on it that make his second inaugural address so magnificent.
His meticulous arrangement of the speech, infused with powerful biblical references, gives it the weight of prophecy, according to Douglas L. Wilson, who wrote a book about Lincoln’s speeches in 2006. But it was also crafted by a superb orator for maximum impact. (Lincoln’s cut-and-paste job and his somewhat eccentric punctuation can be seen as stage directions to himself.)
“He spoke very slowly,” said White, author of the book about the address. “Remember that he’s speaking outside. There’s no amplification. He’s aware of all the distractions and noises. So what do you do if you want to be heard? You speak slowly.”
And in composing speeches, White said, “he would often speak the words out loud before he wrote them on a paper. Lincoln had a remarkable sense of the sound of words.”
Lincoln spoke after more then three years of ferocious conflict that had claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, and in six weeks would claim his. Everyone knew that slavery was the cause of the war, he said. But he wondered why God had brought down so great a tragedy on the country for so long.
“Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’ ”
If Lincoln’s second inaugural address is No. 1, is there a No. 2?
“Franklin Roosevelt’s second inaugural address was a particularly good one,” Ritchie said. “His ideas had jelled a lot. His campaign in 1932 was fairly diffuse, and he really didn’t define what the New Deal was going to do. … By ’36, he pretty well knew what he wanted and what the problems were.”
Roosevelt said: “Our progress out of the depression is obvious. … We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics. … We are beginning to abandon our tolerance of the abuse of power by those who betray for profit the elementary decencies of life.”
As for Jefferson, Ritchie noted that he only gave two speeches during his presidency: his first and second inaugural addresses. In the second, aside from venting at the press, Jefferson explained his purchase of Louisiana.
“I know that the acquisition of Louisiana had been disapproved by some from a candid apprehension that the enlargement of our territory would endanger its union,” he said. But “the larger our association the less will it be shaken by local passions.”
William McKinley’s second inaugural, on March 4, 1901, came after the U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War, in 1898, and amid a bitter anti-American insurgency in the Philippines, which had been seized from Spain. “We are not waging war against the inhabitants of the Philippine Islands,” McKinley said. “A portion of them are making war against the United States.”
McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist six months later.
In 1917, Woodrow Wilson took the oath for his second term in the ornate President’s Room in the Capitol. He took it again, and delivered his speech, the next day.
Less than five weeks before the United States entered World War I, Wilson said: “The shadows that now lie dark upon our path will soon be dispelled … if we be but true to ourselves … as we have wished to be known in … the thought of all those who love liberty and justice and the right exalted.”
Forty years later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke of the quest for peace in the nuclear age.
“We seek peace,” he said, “now, as in no other age … because we have been warned, by the power of modern weapons, that peace may be the only climate possible for human life itself.”
President Nixon spoke in January 1973, during tortured domestic times, near the close of the Vietnam War and seven months after the Watergate break-in that would doom his presidency. “As America’s longest and most difficult war comes to an end, let us again learn to debate our differences with civility and decency,” he said. “At every turn, we have been beset by those who find everything wrong with America and little that is right,” he said. “But I am confident that this will not be the judgment of history on these remarkable times in which we are privileged to live.”
Ronald Reagan flubbed a line in his 1985 address, which was delivered in the Capitol Rotunda because of the bitter temperatures outside.
“We stand together again at the steps of this symbol of our democracy — or we would have been standing at the steps if it hadn’t gotten so cold,” he said. “Now we are standing inside this symbol of our democracy.”
Ritchie said he didn’t think either Bill Clinton’s second inaugural address, in 1997, or George W. Bush’s, in 2005, was that memorable.
But even Hollywood took note of Lincoln’s inauguration sequel; the Oscar-nominated movie Lincoln concludes with a scene of Lincoln giving his second-term speech. “That’s the last seconds of the movie,” Ritchie said. “And that’s a rare occasion, that any president’s inaugural address is going to be in a movie.”