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Passing the torch: Michael Dunne reflects on past US presidential Inaugurals, and the words which still resonate.

Oscar Wilde--who else?--beat all commentators to the punch when he quipped that the 'youth of America is their oldest tradition', adding the knockout blow that they had 'been going on [about it] for three hundred years'. Yet in a paradox worthy of the great raconteur himself, this eternally young country established at its birth a political system whose constitutional framework has changed far less over the last two centuries than those of major European countries such as France, Germany, Italy or the United Kingdom.

The Federal Constitution, drafted in Philadelphia in 1787, became effective with the assembling of the first Congress and the election of General George Washington as first President of the United States. On the last day of April 1789, in the temporary capital of the nascent republic, New York, Washington delivered his--and his nation's--first Inaugural Address to 'his fellow citizens of the Senate and House of Representatives'. On January 20th, 2009 in the federal capital which honours Washington's name, Barack Obama, the forty-fourth President of the United States will deliver his Inaugural before the newly elected 111th Congress, his fellow citizens and, via television, radio and the internet, a global audience of hundreds of millions. The greatest ritual in the avowedly secular American political system will take place. The torch will pass.

That simple yet evocative phrase, whose origins lie in classical antiquity, is familiar from the Inaugural of John F. Kennedy in 1961: 'The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.' Other phrases from that single, short speech have entered common usage--not just anthologies. JFK's promise that the American people would 'pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty'; his exhortation 'never [to] negotiate out of fear' but 'never fear to negotiate'; his call to his 'fellow Americans' to 'ask not what your country can do for you' but rather 'ask what you can do for your country'--such epigrams have become the currency of political rhetoric far beyond the United States.


Kennedy's assassination less than three years later gave a poignancy to his warning that the tasks before his administration would not be finished within a 'thousand days', let alone a 'hundred days', the symbolic century more resonant than the prosaic three-month period which has become the benchmark of activist government and which is derived from the opening phase of the programme of relief, recovery and reform associated with Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal of the early 1930s. With this allusion, Kennedy linked himself and his 'New Frontier' team to one of the recent heroes of American life, FDR, the president who had pulled the United States out of a terrible economic depression and led the country to the brink of victory in the Second World War, only to die just weeks before VE Day. (A comparable time-span would be Obama invoking Ronald Reagan's first Inaugural of 1981.)

Conversely JFK implicitly distanced himself, the Democratic party and his 'new generation of Americans', from his immediate predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the Republicans under their nominal leader, the defeated presidential candidate, Richard M. Nixon. (General Eisenhower had served, of course, under Roosevelt and his Democratic successor, Harry Truman.)

Such partisanship, even when diluted, is rare in Inaugurals and was already deprecated by Washington's successor, John Adams. Rather, the common characteristic is rhetorical treatment of the essential unity of the American people, their shared values and their common though vicarious history as a nation of immigrants. Indeed, this latter element is central to the role and purpose of Inaugurals in particular and much American political rhetoric in general. President-elect Obama embodies this very diversity; and his mixed heritage seems to inspire foreigners as much as his fellow-citizens. As President Theodore Roosevelt argued (beyond the Inaugural podium) in the early part of the twentieth century, when immigration was at an all-time high: 'Americanism is a question of principle, of purpose, of idealism, of character; it is not a matter of birthplace, or creed, or line of descent.' So repeating a presumed and common history allows, indeed requires, immigrants to share the values of the host nation. The positive side to this identification is the equality of all-comers as well as citizens; the negative side is the pressure for social and political conformity.

But it is the positive which is accentuated in Inaugurals, not the negative, especially in moments of great crisis. During wars, presidents have sought themes to unite and uplift the American people; in less dramatic times the melodies are modulated. Everyone remembers FDR's Inaugural warning at the nadir of the Depression: 'The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.' And this was but one gem in a chain of brilliant phrases when, as Roosevelt stated, 'only a foolish optimist [could] deny the dark realities of the moment'.

Now, in the winter of 2008-2009, the American people are engaged in two major wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and face a financial and economic crisis comparable to the Stock Market crash of 1929 which accelerated the onset of the Great Depression, a slump which was not overcome until military and war-time federal expenditure pumped billions of dollars into the economy. How will the incoming President and his team of speech-writers address the current challenges? We shall know soon. But we can be sure even now that the dozens of presidential Inaugurals delivered in the past 220 years will be mined for ideas and--perhaps--striking phrases to quote.

Some themes will certainly be avoided. In George Washington's precedent-setting first Inaugural he reminded his 'fellow citizens' that he had served as Commander-in-Chief during the Revolutionary War on an expenses-only basis and so proposed to serve as first President without pay. Over a century later in 1901, William McKinley used the opening of his second Inaugural to review the Federal finances, proudly drawing attention to the fiscal surplus and the stabilisation of the dollar on the gold-standard. President Obama will not be reprising these commitments and successes. Nor will he re-trace the arguments of Abraham Lincoln, 'the Great Emancipator', in his first Inaugural in 1861 on the eve of the American Civil War, that while he himself opposed the expansion of slavery, he was constitutionally bound to protect the institution of slavery in those states and territories where it legally existed. If Obama echoes this first Inaugural it will be in Lincoln's plea to the secessionist Southern Confederacy 'not [to] break [the] bonds of affection' but rather listen to the 'mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave'; and for Americans in both the North and the South to be 'touched ... by the better angels of [their] nature' and seek a peaceful resolution to the impending crisis of civil war.

But 'the war came', as Lincoln said laconically in his second Inaugural in 1865, only weeks before his assassination. The defeat of the Southern Confederacy ended slavery in the United States--but not the racism which was an ideological prop to slavery. The Civil War also ended secession as a political threat from disgruntled regions of the Union: the frontier West in the young Republic; New England in the early nineteenth century; much of the South in the decades before the Civil War finally came. Fears of secession, of the disunion of the United States, of the quenching of 'the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government' were often expressed in Inaugurals from the time when Washington himself used these very words in 1789. Indeed, when James K. Polk gave his Inaugural in 1845 he countered opposition to the annexation of Texas (a slave-holding state which had seceded from the Republic of Mexico) by insisting that it would be 're-annexation', 'reunion', since the United States should never have renounced its claims to land north of the Rio Grande. Likewise, Polk added, the United States would enforce its right to the vast Oregon territory in the Pacific Northwest, disputed with the British in Canada and the Russians in Alaska. In language which has entered into the mindset of later presidents and their compatriots, Polk asserted that the further the American system advanced abroad, the more secure would be the sphere of peace.


Kennedy's assassination gave poignancy to the promises of his Inaugural; even more so Lincoln's death so soon after his second Inaugural--at least for Northerners and supporters of the Union. The great 'captain' (in Walt Whitman's words) who had brought 'the victor ship [through the] fearful trip' now lay 'cold and dead' only weeks after delivering one of the shortest but most memorable of all presidential speeches.

The closing sentence of Lincoln's second Inaugural has been repeated countless times when, as now, Americans try to look beyond the burdens and sacrifices of war: '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 do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.'


Seven years of war in Afghanistan and almost six years of war in Iraq have not, of course, been as costly in American lives, nor as divisive as the Civil War. But in economic terms these wars have spiralled way beyond any forecasts; and throughout the Middle East and within the post-Cold War Western alliance, opposition to the conflicts has been widespread. In campaign promises, Obama said (unlike his rival, John McCain) that he would withdraw US troops within months rather than years of his inauguration. Americans, and those who wish the United States well or harm, will wait to see how this commitment is compromised and qualified by the new president on and after January 20th, 2009. But it will take oratory to match that of Lincoln and some careful phrasing to combine a promise to end the loss of American lives, justify the loss of lives so far, and maintain the dominant American military presence in the Middle East which was the essential reason for the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

The presence of war in so many Inaugurals is a reminder that the United States, promoted as a peace-loving nation, was created through the War of Independence; fought a so-called Second War of Independence against the British in 1812-14; battled the Mexicans in the 1840s and consequently acquired California, Texas and much of today's south-western United States; endured its own murderous Civil War; waged many Indian campaigns throughout the nineteenth century; defeated the Spanish empire in 1898 en route to the American version of European imperialism--not to mention a twentieth century of two world wars and counterinsurgency operations during the subsequent Cold War. Few of these wars will be mentioned explicitly on Inauguration Day 2009. Rather the on-going wars in the Middle East will be framed within a narrative of the peaceful extension of the American way of life and American values. This is the dominant American rhetorical trope. As his fellow citizens watch the first Black president deliver his Inaugural, they will assuredly thrill to those 'mystic chords' which celebrate the pacific, uplifting and ennobling aspects of American history; they will see the assassinated Martin Luther King's 'dream' of 1963 come true in the presidency of Barack Obama; and, perhaps, they will recall the words of Washington and Jefferson in their first Inaugurals: that the 'experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people' to preserve and defend liberty and republicanism ('the world's best hope') has been taken up once again.

In the English-speaking world, American political rhetoric is unsurpassed. The presidential words and phrases quoted above come from just one part of this outstanding literature. But President Obama will not confine his words and thoughts to these inauguration precedents. At the turning-point of the Civil War Lincoln delivered a battlefield eulogy which became known as the Gettysburg Address. During this most brief of all his pronouncements Lincoln stated: 'The world will little note nor long remember what we say here ...' How wrong he was. Beginning with simple language and ending in even simpler terms, Lincoln fashioned two of the most inspirational sentences in the American political canon. The generation of Washington and Jefferson had 'brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal'. Now, in the midst of this terrible Civil War, their descendants' task was to ensure that 'this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom--and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth'.

Later generations know just how problematical this picture of American history can be; they know how these fine words need to be decoded and contextualised, racialised and gendered; they know that they cannot be used as simple shorthand for the complex narrative of the American past. Equally, we can recognise their force; and--as shown by Martin Luther King--we can realise that words may still be used to change the direction of American history.

Michael Dunne is Visiting Professor at St Cross College, Oxford, and a Research Associate at Cambridge's Centre of Latin American Studies.
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Author:Dunne, Michael
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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