Inaugural speeches set the tone for incoming presidential administrations and have provided over time some of the most memorable and often quoted phrases uttered by Presidents. That’s especially true in perilous times of great civil discord.
Joe Biden will become the 46th President of the United States on Wednesday and his words will assume even greater significance in the wake of a mob insurgency at the US Capitol on January 6, which revealed deep divisions over who won the election – and reality itself. It won’t be the first time an incoming President faced calamitous circumstances and called for national unity.
Abraham Lincoln delivered his first inaugural speech in March of 1861 after seven states had seceded to form the Confederates States of America. His poetic closing plea was directed toward a polarized populace bracing for civil war:
“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.”
Thomas Jefferson, after his tempestuous victory over John Adams characterized by savage election attacks not always rooted in facts, attempted to soothe Americans by saying:
“Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things…. Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”
Perhaps the most relevant inaugural to the one Biden will give this week came from George W. Bush, whose election victory over Al Gore in 2000 hinged on a US Supreme Court decision tied to hanging chads in Florida’s disputed election. His speech included these lines: “As I begin, I thank President Clinton for his service to our nation. And I thank Vice President Gore for a contest conducted with spirit and ended with grace.”
The most relevant portions of the Bush inaugural address:
“We are confident in principles that unite and lead us onward. America has never been united by blood or birth or soil. We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests and teach us what it means to be citizens. Every child must be taught these principles. Every citizen must uphold them. And every immigrant, by embracing these ideals, makes our country more, not less, American.
Today, we affirm a new commitment to live out our nation’s promise through civility, courage, compassion and character.
America, at its best, matches a commitment to principle with a concern for civility. A civil society demands from each of us good will and respect, fair dealing and forgiveness.
Some seem to believe that our politics can afford to be petty because, in a time of peace, the stakes of our debates appear small. But the stakes for America are never small. If our country does not lead the cause of freedom, it will not be led. If we do not turn the hearts of children toward knowledge and character, we will lose their gifts and undermine their idealism. If we permit our economy to drift and decline, the vulnerable will suffer most.
Today, we affirm a new commitment to live out our nation’s promise through civility, courage, compassion and character. America, at its best, matches a commitment to principle with a concern for civility. A civil society demands from each of us good will and respect, fair dealing and forgiveness.
We must live up to the calling we share. Civility is not a tactic or a sentiment. It is the determined choice of trust over cynicism, of community over chaos. And this commitment, if we keep it, is a way to shared accomplishment. America, at its best, is also courageous.”
A question looms about whether Biden will address a nation that still clings to shared values, according to Michael Gerson, the lead writer on Bush’s inaugural. As he explained to CBS’ John Dickerson: “I re-read the speech recently and found myself choking up, not just because of the words, but because that was a realistic prospect at that moment, that we could have national healing based on shared national values. My concern right now, is that a naïve approach? Is the assertion of common values going to be accepted by a country that lives in different cultures and ways of life?”
Amid contemporary fears of continuing civil strife, it’s worth recalling Lincoln’s second inaugural, which provided a bookend to the Civil War:
“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.”
Then came Lincoln’s famous coda, uttered only 41 days before his assassination:
“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.”
Gerson notes Biden will deliver his speech with the Capitol towering behind him like a “scar of insurrection’. With an apprehensive public looking on, Biden’s inaugural challenge, Gerson says, will be “to create a space for sanity” where a majority of Americans can congregate as the nation combats a pandemic, rebuilds the economy and restores trust.
A speech by Martin Luther King Jr. more than 50 years ago in Washington, DC also offers guidance for Biden’s inaugural challenge:
“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”