Thursday, March 08, 2012
Wednesday, March 07, 2012
By contrast with William Henry Harrison's long inaugural address, the shortest thus far is George Washington's second inaugural, delivered on March 4, 1793. This is the entire thing:
I am again called upon by the voice of my country to execute the functions of its Chief Magistrate. When the occasion proper for it shall arrive, I shall endeavor to express the high sense I entertain of this distinguished honor, and of the confidence which has been reposed in me by the people of united America.
Previous to the execution of any official act of the President the Constitution requires an oath of office. This oath I am now about to take, and in your presence: That if it shall be found during my administration of the Government I have in any instance violated willingly or knowingly the injunctions thereof, I may (besides incurring constitutional punishment) be subject to the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony.
Tuesday, March 06, 2012
On March 4, 1841, William Henry Harrison gave, in a record that stands to this day, the longest inaugural address. It took him an hour and forty-five minutes to deliver his remarks, on a cold, snowy day in Washington City all those years ago. Later, he died (probably) of pneumonia. The two events are inevitably linked in mentions of the demise of this shortest of short-time presidents one month later, but standing in the wet cold for a while, by itself, doesn't cause pneumonia.
Still, at some point President Harrison picked up an infectious agent that destroyed him -- all too easy for an elderly gentleman in the 19th century. But what about the inaugural speech itself? It is rarely quoted, perhaps for good reason. It's quite alien-sounding to modern ears.
For example, he freely made mention of ancient Rome to illustrate certain points, using the term Roman seven times during the course of the speech, beginning in the second paragraph:
"It was the remark of a Roman consul in an early period of that celebrated Republic that a most striking contrast was observable in the conduct of candidates for offices of power and trust before and after obtaining them, they seldom carrying out in the latter case the pledges and promises made in the former. However much the world may have improved in many respects in the lapse of upward of two thousand years since the remark was made by the virtuous and indignant Roman, I fear that a strict examination of the annals of some of the modern elective governments would develop similar instances of violated confidence..."
Later: "The boasted privilege of a Roman citizen was to him a shield only against a petty provincial ruler, whilst the proud democrat of Athens would console himself under a sentence of death for a supposed violation of the national faith — which no one understood and which at times was the subject of the mockery of all — or the banishment from his home, his family, and his country with or without an alleged cause, that it was the act not of a single tyrant or hated aristocracy, but of his assembled countrymen."
And then: "...The first Roman Emperor, in his attempt to seize the sacred treasure, silenced the opposition of the officer to whose charge it had been committed by a significant allusion to his sword. By a selection of political instruments for the care of the public money a reference to their commissions by a President would be quite as effectual an argument as that of Caesar to the Roman knight."
Harrison warned that, "Caesar became the master of the Roman people and the senate under the pretense of supporting the democratic claims of the former against the aristocracy of the latter; Cromwell, in the character of protector of the liberties of the people, became the dictator of England, and Bolivar possessed himself of unlimited power with the title of his country's liberator."
Toward the end, the president said: "It was the beautiful remark of a distinguished English writer that 'in the Roman Senate Octavius had a party and Anthony a party, but the Commonwealth had none.' Yet the Senate continued to meet in the temple of liberty to talk of the sacredness and beauty of the Commonwealth and gaze at the statues of the elder Brutus and of the Curtii and Decii, and the people assembled in the forum, not, as in the days of Camillus and the Scipios, to cast their free votes for annual magistrates or pass upon the acts of the senate, but to receive from the hands of the leaders of the respective parties their share of the spoils and to shout for one or the other, as those collected in Gaul or Egypt and the lesser Asia would furnish the larger dividend."
Monday, March 05, 2012
"This great nation will endure, as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."
Sunday, March 04, 2012
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.
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.
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. 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."
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.
Thursday, March 01, 2012
Lincoln's First Inauguration, March 4, 1861
From Washington to Franklin Roosevelt, no fewer than 27 presidents took the oath of office on that day (four did not because they were vice presidents who succeed presidents, but didn't win their own terms). Only 12 presidents have taken the oath on January 20 (FDR is in both categories and Ford didn't win his own term). Eventually, assuming the office endures and the Constitution isn't changed again, January 20 will overtake March 4, but it will be well into the 21st century before it does.
The March 4 inaugurations are rich in history. In 1801 and 1877, disputed elections almost meant the inauguration would have been delayed -- but it's never happened. William Henry Harrison famously gave a long, long speech on March 4, 1841, picked up a virus (presumably) and went down in history as a one-month president. Two of Lincoln's most famed speeches, the First and Second Inaugurals, were on March 4 four years apart. FDR's 1933 First Inaugural, which came on the very last March 4 swearing-in, is also rightly remembered as a rhetorical gem.