That Lincoln's Second Inaugural sets the standard will receive no argument from me. Ronald White writes that the power of the speech stems from Lincoln's intention to surprise his audience, emphasizing reconciliation over conquest, continually invoking God, and reflecting on the problem of slavery rather than American virtue. It is the last quality that I find the most compelling, in part because in honestly acknowledging slavery Lincoln defied all the conventions that modern speechwriters and politicians cling to. Lincoln does not represent himself as a Happy Warrior and there is no trace of American exceptionalism or a grand destiny in the speech. Lincoln dismisses in one line what every other President spends so much of their Inaugurals contemplating:
With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.After which, Lincoln delivered a speech that somehow matched in its wisdom the scope of the national tragedy that had occurred since slaves were first brought American shores in 1619. Frederick Douglass called it "a sacred effort." Garry Wills has said that Lincoln believed the speech was his best, better even than the Gettysburg Address, and that Booth's bullet was as much a blow to the literary future of the nation as well as its political edifice. "The Second Inaugural," he wrote, "is the towering measure of our loss."
Are all the other Second Inaugurals so inadequate? Each speech in its entirety cannot compare with Lincoln's, and some are downright bad. Jefferson's Second Inaugural (in contrast with his conciliatory First) is filled with acrimony and threats.
During this course of administration, and in order to disturb it, the artillery of the press has been levelled against us, charged with whatsoever its licentiousness could devise or dare. These abuses of an institution so important to freedom and science, are deeply to be regretted, inasmuch as they tend to lessen its usefulness, and to sap its safety; they might, indeed, have been corrected by the wholesome punishments reserved and provided by the laws of the several States against falsehood and defamation; but public duties more urgent press on the time of public servants, and the offenders have therefore been left to find their punishment in the public indignation.Unpleasant stuff from TJ. But not everyone was so thin skinned. In many other Second Inaugurals there are moments of insight that deserve appreciation. In 1833, Andrew Jackson spoke against nullification, a reminder that contemporary states' rights gun advocates would do well to heed.
To this end it becomes the duty of all to yield a ready and patriotic submission to the laws constitutionally enacted and thereby promote and strengthen a proper confidence in those institutions of the several States and of the United States which the people themselves have ordained for their own government.In his 1917 speech emphasizing unity in an unsettled world, Woodrow Wilson included a warning against the corporate lobbying that infects modern governance:
We are to beware of all men who would turn the tasks and the necessities of the nation to their own private profit or use them for the building up of private power.No single line in FDR's Second Inaugural was so timeless as his First Inaugural's first paragraph's "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." But he did use his 1937 speech to articulate the new economic philosophy that was shaping the modern nation, a body of ideas that Republican neoliberals still seek to undo.
Our progress out of the depression is obvious. But that is not all that you and I mean by the new order of things. Our pledge was not merely to do a patchwork job with secondhand materials. By using the new materials of social justice we have undertaken to erect on the old foundations a more enduring structure for the better use of future generations.Twenty years later, Eisenhower's address had within it a call for international engagement that the present Republican Party has rejected:
In that purpose we have been helped by achievements of mind and spirit. Old truths have been relearned; untruths have been unlearned. We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics. Out of the collapse of a prosperity whose builders boasted their practicality has come the conviction that in the long run economic morality pays. We are beginning to wipe out the line that divides the practical from the ideal; and in so doing we are fashioning an instrument of unimagined power for the establishment of a morally better world.
We must use our skills and knowledge and, at times, our substance, to help others rise from misery, however far the scene of suffering may be from our shores. For wherever in the world a people knows desperate want, there must appear at least the spark of hope, the hope of progress--or there will surely rise at last the flames of conflict.And now we have Obama's Second Inaugural to add to the list. At first glance, it reads like many of the others: high minded, benignly vague even as it is issue oriented (debt reduction, middle class enlargement, climate change, gun control), and therefore destined for news cycle mortality. But one section did stand out for me, a reshaping in three sentences of our frontier mythology into a vision for social justice.
We recognize and accept our own deep involvement in the destiny of men everywhere. We are accordingly pledged to honor, and to strive to fortify, the authority of the United Nations. For in that body rests the best hope of our age for the assertion of that law by which all nations may live in dignity.
It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.It's an assertive speech, a call for Union—not bipartisanship, but Union—regarding the central challenges of our day. A paragraph on climate change is a big deal. Referencing Newtown matters. But Lincoln's Second Inaugural remains unassailed.