It Seems To Me

Reading the Inaugurals

A primer on what presidents say after they take the oath.

President Clinton’s Inaugural Address this month is the 53rd in the series that began in 1789. All are worth a read–not just the highlights, such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and FDR. They will give you a feeling of being there, not as an omniscient historian of 1997 looking back at 1837 or 1897 but as an ordinary citizen who shares–and is limited by–the information, the concerns, and the values of those times. (Thanks to Columbia University, all the addresses can be found on the Web.)

Among all the past presidents and their speech writers there was only one literary genius: Lincoln. After 132 years, his second inaugural still brings tears to your eyes and chills your blood. None of the other inaugural addresses are in that league. But by and large they are dignified and intelligent speeches given by articulate men, each in touch with his times and aware that his inauguration was the most solemn occasion of his life.

T he stance and style of the inaugurals seem to have gone through three phases. The first, lasting until Lincoln, was that of the modest, classic public servant. The second, lasting through William Howard Taft, was of the prosaic government executive. The third, in which we are still, is the phase of the assertive, theatrical leader-preacher. This classification is not waterproof. Theodore Roosevelt may belong in the third phase and Warren G. Harding-Calvin Coolidge-Herbert Hoover in the second. But the trend is clear.

On picking up Washington’s first inaugural, one is immediately struck by the modesty. He had just been elected unanimously by the Electoral College. He was more respected than any subsequent president has been at the time of his inauguration. And what does he say?

[T]he magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most experienced of her citizens a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications, could not but overwhelm with despondence one who (inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpracticed in the duties of civil administration) ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies.

None of his successors has made the point as forcefully as that. But echoes are to be found in almost every president for the next 68 years. (John Adams was an exception. He was apparently so envious of Washington that he spent a large part of his address spelling out his own excellent qualifications for the job.) That era ended with Lincoln. Subsequent inaugurals routinely contain protestations of humility, but they are perfunctory and do not sound sincere.

The antebellum modesty, while in part a reflection of the conventional etiquette of the time, may also have served a political objective: to alleviate the concerns of those who–in the early days of the republic–feared it might be transformed into a monarchy, and the president into a king. A little later, perhaps after 1820, a new worry arose. Would the power of the federal government be used to interfere with the “peculiar domestic institution” of the Southern states? The presidents’ assurance of the limitation of their powers may have been intended to give comfort to those states.

Lincoln faced a different situation. With the South already seceding, he could only “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution” by asserting the power of the federal government and his own power as chief executive. It was no time for modesty. Lincoln’s successors inherited a federal government with much more authority–and more need to use it–than before the war, and they had less motivation to belittle themselves and their powers.

In the third phase, the Inaugural Address metamorphosed from describing the government’s policy to inspiring the public’s behavior. Presidents recognized–or, at least, believed–that the country had problems they ought to deal with but could not manage by using the instruments of government alone. Thus, in his first inaugural, Woodrow Wilson said: “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 the vital. With this vision we approach new affairs.”

If the country is debased and decadent, the cure has to come from uplifting the people, not from acts of government. Similar diagnoses and prescriptions appear in later inaugurals.

P residents derived their license to serve as leader-preacher from Theodore Roosevelt’s remark that the presidency was “a bully pulpit,” a remark that did not appear in his Inaugural Address. The metaphor of the pulpit suggests not reading but oral and visual contact between the preacher and his flock. Radio and–even more–television made this possible on a national scale. A telltale sign of the leader-preacher inaugural is the use of the phrase, “Let us … “–meaning, “You do as I say.” This expression appears occasionally throughout the history of inaugurals, but it has hit its stride in recent years. John F. Kennedy repeated it 16 times in his Inaugural Address, and Richard Nixon has it 22 times in his second one.

The change in literary style from classical to colloquial can be demonstrated by one statistic. In all the inaugurals from Washington through James Buchanan, the average number of words per sentence was 44. From Lincoln to Wilson it was 34, and since Wilson it has been 25. I do not consider this a deterioration (this article has an average of 17 words per sentence), but it does reflect the change in the size and character of the audience and in the means of communication. William Henry Harrison could talk about the governments of Athens, Rome, and the Helvetic Confederacy and expect his audience to know what he was talking about. That wouldn’t be true today. But Harrison’s audience would not have known what the Internet was.

Presidents and their speech writers have mined their predecessors for memorable words and repeated them without attribution. Kennedy’s trumpet call, “Ask not what your country can do for you: Ask what you can do for your country,” has an ironic history. In his inaugural, Harding, surely no model for Kennedy, had said, “Our most dangerous tendency is to expect too little of government, and at the same time do for it too little.” And even before he became president, in a speech in 1916, Harding had said, “In the great fulfillment we must have a citizenship less concerned about what the government can do for it and more anxious about what it can do for the nation.”

Many an issue frets its hour on the inaugural stage and then is heard no more. That includes the Indians, the coastal fortifications, territorial expansion, the Isthmus Canal, civil-service reform, polygamy, and Prohibition. Some subjects that you expect to appear, don’t. Hoover’s inaugural, March 4, 1929, gives no hint of economic vulnerability. Roosevelt’s second inaugural, Jan. 20, 1937, contains no reference to Hitler or to Germany. But what is most amazing, at least to a reader in 1997, is the silence of the inaugurals on the subject of women. The word “women” does not appear at all until Wilson’s first inaugural, and it always appears as part of the phrase “men and women,” never as referring to any special concerns of women. Even Harding, the first president to be chosen in an election in which women voted nationally, does not remark on the uniqueness of the fact in his inaugural.

O ne subject that does get ample treatment is taxes. “Taxes,” or some equivalent word, appears in 43 of the 52 inaugural addresses to date. Coolidge said in 1925: “The time is arriving when we can have further tax reduction. … I am opposed to extremely high rates, because they produce little or no revenue, because they are bad for the country, and, finally, because they are wrong.” Federal taxes were then about 3 percent of the gross domestic product. Ronald Reagan said essentially the same thing in 1981, when they were 20 percent.

The most disturbing aspect of the whole series of inaugurals is what is said and unsaid on the subject of race relations, which Arthur Schlesinger Jr. calls “the supreme American problem.” The words “black,” “blacks,” “Negro,” or “race” (as applied to blacks) do not appear at all until Rutherford Hayes, 1877. James Monroe asked in 1817, “On whom has oppression fallen in any quarter of our Union? Who has been deprived of any right of person or property?” These were rhetorical questions, intended to get the answer “No one!”–as if there were not millions of slaves in America.

B efore the Civil War the word “slavery” appears only in the Inaugural Address of Martin Van Buren, 1837, and Buchanan, 1857, and then only as something that, pursuant to the Constitution and in order to preserve the Union, should not be interfered with. But although generally unmentionable, the subject was boiling, and would boil over in 1861. After the Civil War, it is in the inaugurals of Hayes, James Garfield (1881), and Benjamin Harrison (1889) that we find the most explicit and positive discussion of the need to convert into reality the rights and freedom granted to the “freedmen” on paper by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. Garfield’s was the strongest among these. (He had been a student at Williams College in the 1850s, 80 years before me, when the college had been a station on the underground railway.) But the subject then began to fade. William McKinley said in his first Inaugural Address, March 4, 1897, “Lynchings must not be tolerated in a great and civilized country like the United States,” but he said it without horror. Taft raised the subject of race relations in 1909 only to express satisfaction at the progress that had been made. And then the subject disappeared. FDR never mentioned it in any of his four inaugurals.

After World War II the subject came back to inaugural addresses, but in a weak and abstract form. That is true even of the presidents we think of as being most concerned with race relations in America–like Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Bill Clinton. Perhaps each thought he had made a sufficient statement by having a black woman–Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, or Maya Angelou–perform at his ceremony. In Clinton’s first inaugural, the only allusion to the race problem is in this sentence: “From our revolution, the Civil War, to the Great Depression to the civil rights movement, our people have always mustered the determination to construct from these crises the pillars of our history.” I recall this not to suggest that their concern was not deep and sincere, but only to indicate what is acceptable to say in a speech intended to appeal to the values shared by Americans.

There is much more to ponder in these speeches than I have suggested here. There is much to be proud of, in what we have endured and achieved, in the peaceful transference of power, and in the reasonableness and moderation of the presidents we have elected. But there is also much humility to be learned. We look back with amazement at the ignorance and moral obtuseness revealed by what our past leaders have said and our past citizens believed. We should recognize that 50 or 100 years from now, readers will shake their heads at what we are saying and believing today.

POSTSCRIPT: To read Herbert Stein’s analysis of President Clinton’s second Inaugural Address, click.