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We have a presidential inauguration coming up. The 44th president of the United States will be sworn into office on January 20 and will immediately assume the burden of figuring out just why he wanted the job. But first he will deliver an address to the nation, one that the nation may or may not choose to remember beyond January 21.
Some inaugural addresses have lived on in our national literature. Most have been consigned to well-merited oblivion. One is remembered solely because its author, William Henry Harrison, hero of the battle of Tippencanoe and of the War of 1812, took ill while delivering it and died a month later, placing “Tyler, too” in the big chair.
The story of [Lincoln’s] rise from the backwoods to the White House…remains one of the essential elements of American civic religion.
Of the first 15 presidents of the United States, five—George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe—were Founders. Of the next ten, three—Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, and Zachary Taylor—were celebrated generals, and the other seven were career politicians. Of those seven, three served as governor of their states before becoming president (and another was the son of a governor) and three served in the Cabinet. The first president who was not a famed warrior, a governor, an ambassador, or a Cabinet member before ascending to the chief magistracy was the thirteenth, Millard Fillmore, who also was not elected to the office.
In 1840 it was the raucous “log cabin and hard cider” campaign of torchlight parades and slogans and general hoopla that brought Harrison to the White House. Though hailed as a man of the people, he had in fact been born on his wealthy family’s Virginia plantation. Then came 1860 and the election of Abraham Lincoln, who actually had been born in a log cabin. The story of his rise from the backwoods to the White House has been told many times and in many forms. It remains one of the essential elements of American civic religion.
As we approach Lincoln’s bicentennial on February 12 it is well to look back upon his presidency, which stands as the fulcrum of American history as we understand it. Before it, it was reasonable to assert, as the South Carolina convention of December 1860 did, that the Constitution
established, by compact between the states, a government with defined objects and powers, limited to the express words of the grant….We hold that the government thus established is subject to the two great principles asserted in the Declaration of Independence; and we hold further that the mode of its formation subjects it to a third fundamental principle, namely, the law of compact. We maintain that in every compact … each party is remitted to his own judgment to determine the fact of failure, with all its consequences.
In this theory, the federal government is a mere epiphenomenon of the compact among the states, each of which retains the right to withdraw at any time and to resume the full sovereignty declared in 1776.
The convention then came to the point:
A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the states north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery….
On the 4th of March next this party will take possession of the government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunal shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.
On that March 4, 1861, by which time six more states had joined South Carolina in declaring secession and in forming the Confederate States of America, Lincoln replied thus:
The chief magistrate derives all his authority from the people, and they have conferred none upon him to fix terms for the separation of the States. The people themselves can do this also if they choose; but the executive, as such, has nothing to do with it. His duty is to administer the present government, as it came into his hands, and to transmit it, unimpaired by him, to his successor….
By the frame of the government under which we live, this same people have wisely given their public servants but little power for mischief; and have, with equal wisdom, provided for the return of that little to their own hands at very short intervals. While the people retain their virtue and vigilance, no administration, by any extreme of wickedness or folly, can very seriously injure the government in the short space of four years.
For Lincoln, the Constitution was formed, as the Preamble asserts, by “We the People,” who had the several states as their instruments in doing so. But Lincoln’s concern was not constitutional theory in any case. Against the dry legalism of the convention, which hardly masked a volatile blend of injured pride and threatened self-interest, he set the full-blooded reality of an established government, a shared history, shared sacrifice, and a common humanity:
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 battle-field 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.
On March 4, 1865, Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address. Wearied by war, by dissent in his party and Cabinet, and by personal tragedy, he spoke briefly and solemnly:
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.
Had Lincoln never sought public office but only written on public affairs, he would be remembered as a political thinker and writer of the first water.
These words, these sentences, to say nothing of these sentiments, were from a man of the most obscure birth, with almost no formal education and (we moderns have to remind ourselves) no speechwriters. Had Lincoln never sought public office but only written on public affairs, he would be remembered as a political thinker and writer of the first water. That his later writings are shaped by searing experience and the unimaginable weight of responsibility as much as by his stylistic mentors—Shakespeare and the King James Bible—explains the poignancy that we feel so strongly in them today. To those literary models he added his own clear thinking and plainspokenness to what he once called the “specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse-chestnut to be a chestnut horse.” Some would argue that he was the foremost American prose writer of his century, perhaps sharing the honor with Mark Twain.
Plus, he saved the Union.
The deranged deed of John Wilkes Booth just six weeks after that second inauguration brought to a close the arc of a life that even then seemed beyond improbable, almost mythic in significance. At his death his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton—a Democrat and originally no friend of the president’s—is supposed to have murmured “Now he belongs to the ages.” It is part of our common inherited good fortune to be of one of those ages to which Lincoln belongs.
Lincoln’s addresses, along with others that we look back to—Washington’s Farewell, some passages from Webster and Wilson and Roosevelt, King’s Dream, for examples—benefit, for the contemporary reader, from the warm, misty glow of history, which largely screens us from the heat of the issues to which they spoke. Like them in their proper days, the inaugural coming up this month, by another improbable president, will be heard by those in its intended audience according to their very real, very immediate dreams and fears, which means that it will be heard in many very different ways. Whether it ultimately joins the canon of American expression will be decided only after we have all been forgiven or forgotten.
Robert McHenry is the former editor of Encyclopædia Britannica.
Image by Darren Wamboldt/the Bergman Group/Shutterstock.
It is part of our common inherited good fortune to be of one of those ages to which Lincoln belongs.
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