Opinion

Obama at Gettysburg

Obama’s speech was like Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address? Like Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address?

Lincoln’s Second Inaugural has aptly been called the most terrifying state paper in American history. Its core message is so shocking and so painful that it is almost beyond imagination that it could have been delivered by a democratically elected politician.

Think of it: March 4, 1865. Union armies entrenched about the Virginia city of Petersburg in a siege that has already lasted almost nine months, taking casualties at a rate of 5,000 a month and more. Today, we know that the end of the war was close at hand, but for all Lincoln’s auditors knew, Petersburg and Richmond might hold on for months. The Confederacy might then shift its capital to Alabama or Texas, and prolong a guerilla insurgency for further months and years.

Think of it: Suffering and sorrow on a scale never to be paralleled in American history, crutch-wielding amputees and black-clad widows on every street of every city and town. And at this moment, the president re-elect steps forward to say—brace yourself:

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.”

Let us pause to enumerate the sacrileges against the American civic faith. Lincoln is telling the people of the north that their cause is not just, that they are fully as implicated in the “offense” of slavery as the people of the south, and that all their grief and suffering and loss is God’s just judgment upon them.

Americans chiseled Lincoln’s words into the marble of his great monument. But they have made it nearly as explicit that politicians should not make a habit of speaking this way. And so they have not.

The most useful way to assess the inaugural addresses is to divide them into a few broad categories.

In the first class are both of Lincoln’s, two of the most majestic and stirring documents in the American canon.

In the second class are speeches that may have flaws but still catch the imagination of the nation across the ages: Jefferson’s first, Franklin Roosevelt’s first and second, John F. Kennedy’s, and Ronald Reagan’s in 1981.

The third class contains speeches whose eloquence does not quite make it into the quotation books but still delivers surprising impact when rediscovered: Madison’s second, Richard Nixon’s first, and George W. Bush’s first.

Fourth class: the better than average—neither especially memorable, nor especially interesting, but impressive enough if delivered by a president with a stately presence and commanding voice. Woodrow Wilson’s second inaugural address was one of these, likewise Harry Truman’s 1949 effort, and Ronald Reagan’s second.

Fifth class: the run of the mill, the great mass of speeches boring to read now, surely equally boring to listen to at the time.

Sixth class: the memorable disasters, speeches that went too long, or sounded too pompous, or over-reached for effect, or issued some statement rapidly invalidated by events. In this class we find the long tedious lectures of John Adams and William Henry Harrison, the pompous preposterousness of Warren Harding, the empty words of Bill Clinton’s first, the posturing of George Bush’s second.

Barack Obama’s speech fell, it seemed to me, into the fourth class. It contained not one memorable phrase. It stumbled again and again into cliché. (I do not believe that the man who wrote the “sail against the wind” speech can really have been much impressed by the reuse of the image of the open hand and the clenched fist, an image that was surely already old when Thutmose IV used it in his speech thanking Ra for making him Pharaoh.) For my thoughts on what President Obama should have said instead—and why he didn’t—click here.

I saw today the crews on Pennsylvania Avenue packing away the last of the inaugural bleachers. It’s time also for Shrum to unpack his skeptical judgment and independent voice. Four years are a long time to suspend your critical faculties.

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