Inauguration 2013: Lincoln and Jackson, Two Historical and Timeless Speeches

Andrew Jackson (March 4, 1833) and Abraham Lincoln (March 4, 1865):

This article is an installment in an eleven-part series on the inaugurations of incumbent presidents who were elected to additional terms in office, culminating in an on-the-ground report of Obama's second inauguration.

Jackson:

In the summer of 1832, President Andrew Jackson declared war on the Second Bank of the United States ... and in so doing declared the terms of that year's presidential campaign. His opponent Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky — one of the most influential legislators in America and a man whose fame and esteem rivaled only that of Jackson himself — unequivocally supported the national banking system, thus guaranteeing that both nascent political parties (Jackson's Democratic Party, which survives today, and Henry Clay's National Republican Party, which does not) would have an issue around which to rally their bases. The election was heated and, although Jackson received a smaller share of the popular vote than he had earned four years earlier, the fact that he had resoundingly triumphed was indisputable. In the aftermath of such an election, one can only imagine that he would have devoted his second inaugural to the question of national banking.

By March 1833, however, the nation was instead focused on another issue entirely — the threat made by the state of South Carolina to secede from the Union in protest of protectionist tariff laws. Although he ultimately proved successful in preventing an early Civil War, Jackson had little doubt that a firmly articulated vision of the importance of the Union needed to be expressed. That explains passages such as this one, which eerily foreshadow many of the themes from the next second inaugural to be covered here. After reiterating his long-avowed belief in the necessity of highly localized government, Jackson stated:

But of equal, and, indeed, of incalculable, importance is the union of these States, and the sacred duty of all to contribute to its preservation by a liberal support of the General Government in the exercise of its just powers. You have been wisely admonished to "accustom yourselves to think and speak of the Union as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity, watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety, discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned, and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of any attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts." Without union our independence and liberty would never have been achieved; without union they never can be maintained. Divided into twenty-four, or even a smaller number, of separate communities, we shall see our internal trade burdened with numberless restraints and exactions; communication between distant points and sections obstructed or cut off; our sons made soldiers to deluge with blood the fields they now till in peace; the mass of our people borne down and impoverished by taxes to support armies and navies, and military leaders at the head of their victorious legions becoming our lawgivers and judges. The loss of liberty, of all good government, of peace, plenty, and happiness, must inevitably follow a dissolution of the Union. In supporting it, therefore, we support all that is dear to the freeman and the philanthropist.

Lincoln:

Because Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address was (in the humble opinion of this author) the greatest presidential speech ever delivered, it deserves a little more attention. Indeed, one could dissect it passage-by-passage as a guide for the tone a president should try to set during his inauguration.

In opening, Lincoln reviewed his successful prosecution of the Civil War with modesty all too lacking in the inaugurals of re-elected predecessors like James Madison.

At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

After that, he reminded the nation of where they had been at the start of his administration — of the tense climate that had preceded the Civil War.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

Knowing full well that many in his audience would disagree with his assessment, Lincoln nevertheless declared that the cause of the Civil War had been slavery — and briefly reviewed the competing sectional positions regarding that so-called "peculiar institution."

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.

From there, he became downright philosophical. The question, as he saw it, was how could any just God permit such terrible bloodshed, destruction, and suffering to take place? As he attempted to reason out this conundrum — using as his frame of reference the Judeo-Christian Bible embraced by "the believers in a living God" of his day — he concluded that the war was a punishment for the evil of slavery.

The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman'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."

To wrap it up, Lincoln offered the faintest foreshadowing of the Reconstruction plan he had in mind, one in which the state would care for veterans and their families (a topic I explore in my Master's Thesis) and adopt a charitable attitude toward the Southern states as they were reintegrated into the Union.

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.

Rarely has Lincoln's Second Inaugural been matched in pithy eloquence or philosophical substantiveness. Certainly it is a rarity among presidential inaugural addresses, which as a rule are celebratory and ideologically superficial documents. If Obama wants his second inaugural address to achieve truly transcendent greatness, he can find no better predecessor to emulate than Lincoln himself.