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Some Inauguration Day Thoughts:

A President-Elect who kicked off his presidential campaign in Springfield, Illinois, and who has successfully and quite self-consciously invoked the memories of both Lincoln and FDR in the run-up to his Inauguration, would hardly seem to need additional suggestions for appropriate presidential models. But I’ll give him one nonetheless; I hope he takes a look at what was surely the first, and which over time remains one of the few, truly great Inaugural Addresses, Jefferson’s in 1801. There’s no better model, Mr. Obama, if you want to:

1. Bind the wounds.

The election of 1800 marked the very dawn of the age of political partisanship – a contest of opinion in which the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think. For the first time, competing candidates for political office aligned themselves with one or another set of publicly-labeled political beliefs – Republican or Federalist – instantiated in the men at the “top of the ticket” (Jefferson and Adams). The election was astonishingly vitriolic; terrible things were said and written about both men by supporters of the other, and a number of people saying and writing some of those things (on the Republican side, at least) had actually been hauled off to jail (courtesy of Adams’ Sedition Act, which made it a federal crime to print “any malicious writings against the government of the United States, or either House of Congress”).

It made Jefferson’s call for non-partisanship all the more resonant and all the more remarkable.

“[The election] being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good. . . . 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. . . . [E]very 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.”

It struck the perfect note – a note, surely, that Mr. Obama will be sounding on Tuesday. Funnily enough, though, Jefferson’s own hand-written version of the speech had it as:
We are all republicans, we are all federalists.”
The initial capitals were inserted, later, by the official government printer, and they have survived through all subsequent printings. It actually makes a pretty big difference. He wasn’t referring to the two emerging political “factions” (as they were then called) at all, but to larger principles. With the initial caps, he’s extending an olive branch to Adams and Hamilton and the other capital-F Federalists. But that’s not quite what he had in mind. He didn’t actually think that we were all capital-F Federalists - he certainly didn’t think that he was a capital-F Federalist. He was, though, a federalist.

2. Beg for indulgence.

You’ll need it. It’s not easy to do without whining, but Jefferson managed to pull it off.

Without pretensions to that high confidence you reposed in our first and greatest revolutionary character, whose preeminent services had entitled him to the first place in his country’s love and destined for him the fairest page in the volume of faithful history [i.e., George Washington], I ask so much confidence only as may give firmness and effect to the legal administration of your affairs. I shall often go wrong through defect of judgment. When right, shall often be thought wrong by those whose positions will not command a view of the whole ground. I ask your indulgence for my own errors, which will never be intentional, and your support against the errors of others, who may condemn what they would not if seen in all its parts. The approbation implied by your suffrage is a great consolation to me for the past, and my future solicitude will be to retain the good opinion of those who have bestowed it in advance, to conciliate that of others by doing them all the good in my power, and to be instrumental to the happiness and freedom of all.

Relying, then, on the patronage of your good will, I advance with obedience to the work, ready to retire from it whenever you become sensible how much better choice it is in your power to make. And may that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe lead our councils to what is best, and give them a favorable issue for your peace and prosperity.

3. Be brief. It’s going to be cold out there. Around 1700 words did the trick in 1801 – about 10 minutes of speaking time. Your instinct is to do more, I’m sure – it’s a grand moment, you’ve got a lot to say, and you’ve proven over and over again that you can say what you have to say awfully well. But please — do keep it short.

2 Responses to “Some Inauguration Day Thoughts:”

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