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In case you missed the first diary in this series, you can link to it here.

In that episode, I examined the history of the US Presidential Inaugural Address from George Washington through James Buchanan, or the two periods I call "Beginnings" and "Antebellum."

Part 2 will cover "Lincoln" (he gets his own era) and "Reconstruction," which covers Grant through McKinley. (Andrew Johnson did not give a formal inaugural address.)

Links to all presidential inauguration addresses can be found at

Many thanks to all of you who have read, recommended, or commented on these diaries. I hope you enjoy them.

(Note: In quotes, original emphasis is shown in italics. My added emphasis is in bold.)

LINCOLN (1861-1865)

A photograph of Lincoln's First Inaugural Address

(Photo from

I have assigned Abraham Lincoln his own category in the annals of US Presidential Inaugurations for two reasons: First, the Civil War is the single most important event in US history, and second, Lincoln redefined the inaugural address in terms of rhetoric.

When Lincoln ran for president on the first Republican ticket, the country was on the brink of Civil War. Southerners were convinced the Republicans intended to destroy the institution of slavery, but Lincoln assured the people throughout the campaign that he had no such plans:

Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered.


I do but quote from one of [my] speeches when I declare that—

I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.

Indeed, he carefully outlined his support of the Fugitive Slave Act as well:

There is much controversy about the delivering up of fugitives from service or labor. The clause I now read is as plainly written in the Constitution as any other of its provisions:

No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall in consequence of any law or regulation therein be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.

It is scarcely questioned that this provision was intended by those who made it for the reclaiming of what we call fugitive slaves; and the intention of the lawgiver is the law.

Despite this, Lincoln noted, he faced a problem no other US President had faced: secession. Keep in mind that at the time of Lincoln's First Inaugural Address, Jefferson Davis had already been sworn in as President of the Confederate States of America two weeks earlier. Lincoln spent much of the remainder of the speech making the case for the Union to the border states and the northern states, whose support he desperately needed:

A disruption of the Federal Union, heretofore only menaced, is now formidably attempted.

I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination.


Again: If the United States be not a government proper, but an association of States in the nature of contract merely, can it, as a contract, be peaceably unmade by less than all the parties who made it? One party to a contract may violate it—-break it, so to speak—-but does it not require all to lawfully rescind it?


[O]ne of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitution was "to form a more perfect Union."

But if destruction of the Union by one or by a part only of the States be lawfully possible, the Union is less perfect than before the Constitution, having lost the vital element of perpetuity.

It follows from these views that no State upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union; that resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally void, and that acts of violence within any State or States against the authority of the United States are insurrectionary or revolutionary, according to circumstances.

Lincoln states that he does not recognize the Confederacy and will enforce the laws of the US. He hopes to avoid war but makes it clear he will go to war if necessary:

I trust this will not be regarded as a menace, but only as the declared purpose of the Union that it will constitutionally defend and maintain itself.

In doing this there needs to be no bloodshed or violence, and there shall be none unless it be forced upon the national authority.

Lincoln also postulates that:

From questions of this class [i.e., questions that can be argued rather than rights explicitly named in the Constitution] spring all our constitutional controversies, and we divide upon them into majorities and minorities. If the minority will not acquiesce, the majority must, or the Government must cease. There is no other alternative, for continuing the Government is acquiescence on one side or the other. If a minority in such case will secede rather than acquiesce, they make a precedent which in turn will divide and ruin them, for a minority of their own will secede from them whenever a majority refuses to be controlled by such minority. For instance, why may not any portion of a new confederacy a year or two hence arbitrarily secede again, precisely as portions of the present Union now claim to secede from it?


Plainly the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy.

Despite the bluster over states rights and secession, Lincoln, in one of the most remarkable lines in the speech, speaks the plain truth here:

One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended.

Lincoln closes with a direct appeal to the South:

In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to "preserve, protect, and defend it."
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Aside from content, the speech is clearly a departure rhetorically from all that had gone before. Not only was Lincoln far more plain and modern in his speech patterns than any of his predecessors, he gives a glimpse--in the final sentence above--of the oratorical flourishes that would mark the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural. Lincoln's mastery of language still ranks him among the most quoted of US Presidents.

Despite this, Lincoln's First Inaugural, while better than any that had come before, pales next to his Second Inaugural, which contains one of the most familiar passages ever uttered by a president. Let's examine it.

Lincoln's handwritten copy of his Second Inaugural Address:

(Photos courtesy

When Lincoln gave his Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865, these statistics were almost complete:

At least 618,000 Americans died in the Civil War, and some experts say the toll reached 700,000. The number that is most often quoted is 620,000. At any rate, these casualties exceed the nation's loss in all its other wars, from the Revolution through Vietnam.

Many scholars speak of Lincoln's conciliatory tone in his Second Inaugural. While the final paragraph hits a note of forgiveness, Lincoln is far more concerned with placing blame for the War squarely on the shoulders of the South:

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, urgent 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.

Furthermore, Lincoln, having signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, now sang a different tune about slavery:

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. ...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 Civil War, Lincoln asserts, may be God's punishment laid upon the US for the sin of slavery. But then Lincoln closes most eloquently,

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.

Overall, Lincoln's speech is one of righteousness but not smugness. He calls upon God and quotes scripture in much the same way that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would a hundred years later. It is clear, even to an atheist like me, that Lincoln is a thoughtful Christian, emphasizing decency, forgiveness, and love. His notion of the war as retribution by God for slavery does not come off as an arbitrary action by a whimsical God but more as karmic justice.

Therefore, Lincoln, because of the monumental times in which he lived and because of his formidable oratorical skills, set a new standard in US Presidential Inaugural Addresses. It would be a long time until another president reached his rhetorical heights.

RECONSTRUCTION (1869-1901: Ulysses S. Grant-William McKinley)

U.S. Grant's first inaugural was completely unremarkable. He urged a return to specie (hard currency) to replace the "greenbacks" issued during the Civil War.

Finally, he urged passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to settle "the question of suffrage." Women, of course, still didn't count when it came to settling suffrage.

His Second Inaugural Address is much more interesting. Grant notes technological progress:

Now that the telegraph is made available for communicating thought, together with rapid transit by steam, all parts of a continent are made contiguous for all purposes of government, and communication between the extreme limits of the country made easier.

He also noted the condition of newly-freed slaves but offered little in the way of real help:

The effects of the late civil strife have been to free the slave and make him a citizen. Yet he is not possessed of the civil rights which citizenship should carry with it. This is wrong, and should be corrected. To this correction I stand committed, so far as Executive influence can avail.

Social equality is not a subject to be legislated upon, nor shall I ask that anything be done to advance the social status of the colored man, except to give him a fair chance to develop what there is good in him, give him access to the schools, and when he travels let him feel assured that his conduct will regulate the treatment and fare he will receive.

And Grant revealed himself to be a utopian one-worlder:

I believe that our Great Maker is preparing the world, in His own good time, to become one nation, speaking one language, and when armies and navies will be no longer required.

Regarding Native Americans, Grant echoed Jefferson's paternal condescension but did offer at least a rhetorical rebuke of genocide, saying one of his priorities was

by a humane course, to bring the aborigines of the country under the benign influences of education and civilization. It is either this or war of extermination: Wars of extermination, engaged in by people pursuing commerce and all industrial pursuits, are expensive even against the weakest people, and are demoralizing and wicked. Our superiority of strength and advantages of civilization should make us lenient toward the Indian. The wrong inflicted upon him should be taken into account and the balance placed to his credit. The moral view of the question should be considered and the question asked, Can not the Indian be made a useful and productive member of society by proper teaching and treatment? If the effort is made in good faith, we will stand better before the civilized nations of the earth and in our own consciences for having made it.

Rutherford B. Hayes continued to wrestle with the conjoined problems of economic devastation and racism in the South. He also urged, as Grant did, a currency tied to specie, saying,

that in my judgment the feeling of uncertainty inseparable from an irredeemable paper currency, with its fluctuation of values, is one of the greatest obstacles to a return to prosperous times. The only safe paper currency is one which rests upon a coin basis and is at all times and promptly convertible into coin.

Finally, as the winner of a highly-disputed election against Democrat Samuel Tilden, Hayes called for unity with the only memorable line of his presidency:

[H]e serves his party best who serves the country best.

James Garfield continued to grapple with the effects of the Civil War. Perhaps the most notable item, however, in light of recent events, is this statement:

The Mormon Church not only offends the moral sense of manhood by sanctioning polygamy, but prevents the administration of justice through ordinary instrumentalities of law.

In my judgment it is the duty of Congress, while respecting to the uttermost the conscientious convictions and religious scruples of every citizen, to prohibit within its jurisdiction all criminal practices, especially of that class which destroy the family relations and endanger social order. Nor can any ecclesiastical organization be safely permitted to usurp in the smallest degree the functions and powers of the National Government.

Grover Cleveland, who ran as a Washington outsider before his first term, offered nothing durable to the canon of inaugural addresses in his first. One hundred years after Washington's First Inaugural Address, Benjamin Harrison, who interrupted Cleveland's two terms, made American self-sufficiency one of the centerpieces of his address. He argued for strong tariffs, noting that no state (particularly the South) could remain a strictly agrarian economy:

If the question [of tariffs] became in any sense or at any time sectional, it was only because slavery existed in some of the States. But for this there was no reason why the cotton-producing States should not have led or walked abreast with the New England States in the production of cotton fabrics. There was this reason only why the States that divide with Pennsylvania the mineral treasures of the great southeastern and central mountain ranges should have been so tardy in bringing to the smelting furnace and to the mill the coal and iron from their near opposing hillsides. Mill fires were lighted at the funeral pile of slavery. The emancipation proclamation was heard in the depths of the earth as well as in the sky; men were made free, and material things became our better servants.

The sectional element has happily been eliminated from the tariff discussion.

In addition, Harrison had this line, which resonates even today:

No political party can long pursue advantage at the expense of public honor or by rude and indecent methods without protest and fatal disaffection in its own body.

Cleveland, re-elected in response to high prices caused by Harrison's tariffs on imported goods, promised to roll them back in his Second Inaugural Address. He also spoke out against pensions which Harrison had extended to Civil War vets and their widows:

The lessons of paternalism ought to be unlearned and the better lesson taught that while the people should patriotically and cheerfully support their Government its functions do not include the support of the people.

The acceptance of this principle...leads also to a challenge of wild and reckless pension expenditure, which overleaps the bounds of grateful recognition of patriotic service and prostitutes to vicious uses the people's prompt and generous impulse to aid those disabled in their country's defense.

William McKinley was sworn in during an economic depression. With the current calls for increased government spending to address our present economic catastrophe, it is interesting that pre-Keynesian McKinley called for the opposite course:

Economy is demanded in every branch of the Government at all times, but especially in periods, like the present, of depression in business and distress among the people. The severest economy must be observed in all public expenditures, and extravagance stopped wherever it is found, and prevented wherever in the future it may be developed.


The Government should not be permitted to run behind or increase its debt in times like the present.

Some things, however, never change:

The restoration of confidence and the revival of business, which men of all parties so much desire, depend more largely upon the prompt, energetic, and intelligent action of Congress than upon any other single agency affecting the situation.

McKinley also spoke out against the growing violence perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan:

Lynchings must not be tolerated in a great and civilized country like the United States; courts, not mobs, must execute the penalties of the law. The preservation of public order, the right of discussion, the integrity of courts, and the orderly administration of justice must continue forever the rock of safety upon which our Government securely rests.

He made no mention of the Phillipines, the Spanish, Puerto Rico, or Cuba, which would all become familiar because of the Spanish-American War.

In his Second Inaugural, the first of the Twentieth Century, McKinley noted

Four years ago we stood on the brink of war without the people knowing it and without any preparation or effort at preparation for the impending peril. I did all that in honor could be done to avert the war, but without avail. It became inevitable; and the Congress at its first regular session, without party division, provided money in anticipation of the crisis and in preparation to meet it. It came. The result was signally favorable to American arms and in the highest degree honorable to the Government.

McKinley also felt that the old North-South division was fading:

We are reunited. Sectionalism has disappeared. Division on public questions can no longer be traced by the war maps of 1861. These old differences less and less disturb the judgment.

McKinley also managed some pretty good oratory:

The path of progress is seldom smooth. New things are often found hard to do. Our fathers found them so. We find them so. They are inconvenient. They cost us something. But are we not made better for the effort and sacrifice, and are not those we serve lifted up and blessed?

Finally, I couldn't help but relate McKinley's words regarding the occupation of Cuba to the current occupation in Iraq. Does this sound familiar?

The peace which we are pledged to leave to the Cuban people must carry with it the guaranties of permanence. We became sponsors for the pacification of the island, and we remain accountable to the Cubans, no less than to our own country and people, for the reconstruction of Cuba as a free commonwealth on abiding foundations of right, justice, liberty, and assured order. Our enfranchisement of the people will not be completed until free Cuba shall "be a reality, not a name; a perfect entity, not a hasty experiment bearing within itself the elements of failure."

McKinley would be assassinated on September 14, 1901, just six months into his second term. His vice-president, Theodore Roosevelt, would usher in the Progressive Era.

Summary of Part 2

Lincoln, of course, is in a class by himself. As Fred Kaplan says in opening his excellent book, Lincoln: The Biography Of a Writer,

For Lincoln, words mattered immensely. His increasing skill in their use during his lifetime, and his high valuation of their power, mark him as the one president who was both a national leader and a genius with language at a time when its power and integrity mattered more than it does today. His was a personality and a career forged in the crucible of language. The novelist William Dean Howell's claim about his friend Mark Twain, that he was the "Lincoln of our literature," can effectively be rephrased with the focus on our sixteenth president: Lincoln was the Twain of our politics. Since Lincoln, no president has written his own words and addressed his contemporary audience or posterity with equal and enduring effectiveness.


Lincoln is distinguished from every other president, with the exception of Jefferson, in that we can be certain that he wrote every word to which his name is attached.


Lincoln was also the last president whose character and standards in the use of language avoided the distortions and other dishonest uses of language that have done so much to undermine the credibility of national leaders.

I believe Lincoln has finally met his match as a writer in Obama. Obama's Dreams from My Father is an exceptionally well-written book by any measure. Regardless, Lincoln's inaugurals set a new standard for US presidents.

What I call the "Reconstruction" era was marked by several disputed issues: The gold standard v. free silver; protectionist tariffs; pensions for disabled soldiers; and anti-trust laws. Generally, Republicans favored the gold standard, high tariffs, pensions for vets, and anti-trust laws. Democrats liked free silver, low or no tariffs, little or no pensions for vets, and no anti-trust laws.

All agreed that the civil service needed reform after scandals in the Grant administration, that a balanced budget was desirable, that isolationism was the best foreign policy, and that although newly-freed blacks deserved full rights, the federal government had little role in helping them.

The Native American issue had faded from view by McKinley's time, only to be replaced by immigration fears.

As the presidential inaugural address entered the Twentieth Century, it remained generally dull but was more issue-oriented than ever before.

Tomorrow: Presidential Inaugurals from Teddy Roosevelt through Franklin Roosevelt. Be there or be square.

SPECIAL BONUS SECTION: Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address Word Cloud.

Image courtesy

UPDATE: Here are the links to the other four parts of this diary series:

Part 1 1789-1857 Washington-Buchanan
Part 3 1905-1945: T. Roosevelt-F. Roosevelt
Part 4 1949-2005: Truman-G. W. Bush
Part 5 Summary and Speculation

Originally posted to Dragonation™ on Mon Jan 05, 2009 at 01:58 AM PST.


Have you ever attended an inauguration in person?

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