THE INAUGURAL . . . from Virginia's George Washington to California's Ronald Reagan
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There is something in the sententious, oratorical style of these historic efforts that brings inevitable inquiry into the actualities of what came after. Many of the utterances are noble. Most of them probably achieved their goal of lifting hearts, for the moment at least, of promoting unity, of abjuring partisan bickering and reviving common effort. The reader, in the unfair advantage of retrospect, can gauge how long the effect of this pep talk lasted or wonder in amazement how an earlier generation failed to see trends and dangers right under its nose. The reader ends by asking, in the latest presidential inaugural, what profound development he is missing today.Skip to next paragraph
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President after president up to 1861, for example, faced the corrupting problem of slavery. The very Founding Fathers in their Constitution, of course, ingeniously dodged the issue by avoiding using the words "slave," "black," or "Negro." They refer to the race, for example, in Article I, Section 9, as "certain persons," and the "migration or importation of such persons. . . ."
For the earlier presidents, mention of the servitude couldn't be made, with results that sound pharisaical. Here is James Monroe, March 4, 1817, in his inaugural, exulting in the virtues of freedom in America: "And if we look to the condition of individuals, what a proud spectacle does it exhibit! On whom has oppression fallen in any quarter of our union? Who has been deprived of any right of person or property?"
No wonder visiting Europeans like Charles Dickens blinked. Such bland myopia makes the modern reader sigh. Martin Van Buren, in his 1837 inaugural, said that "the venerated fathers of the republic" accepted slavery and he would follow their example as an "inflexible and uncompromising opponent of every attempt on the part of Congress" to change matters, and particularly "to resist the slightest interference with it in the states where it exists."
One can trace the terrible gathering storm, if one has the heart to do it, in various hints and tokens of the newly elected politicians, and in what they fail to say as well as in what they utter at the moment of their inauguration.
There are surprises in these inaugural speeches for the average reader. Did you know that Santo Domingo might have become a state? That at least was the proposal President Ulysses S. Grant discussed in his second inaugural in 1873. But Congress already had rejected it. "I believe now, as I did then, that it was for the best interest of this country, for the people of Santo Domingo, and all concerned that the proposition should be received favorably." He is resigned , however, to the failure of his proposal.
William Howard Taft in 1909 gave a discursive outline of his projects, on the heels of the panic of 1907. One proposal was a graduated inheritance tax, which seemed rather radical to many at the time. Taft defended the tax as "correct in principle and certain and easy of collection." Was this socialism? some asked. Congress actually passed another tax, a graduated income tax, which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional. Taft ultimately headed the Supreme Court, and the nation in the meantime overruled the tribunal in 1913 by ratifying the 16th Amendment, which authorized the income tax.