THE INAUGURAL . . . from Virginia's George Washington to California's Ronald Reagan
Washington — The war was won, the Constitution ratified, George Washington prepared to set out on his triumphal journey to New York to make the first inaugural address, but first he borrowed L500 from Richard Conway "to discharge what I owe in Alexandria and leave the state." Two days later he borrowed an extra L100 to make sure he had adequate funds to avoid any embarrassment on the tremendous occasion.
Washington made a splendid figure of a man as he stood in plain brown suit on the balcony of Federal Hall overlooking Wall Street and the cheering crowds, April 30, 1789. He was to set the pattern for exhortation and personal leadership that have come to mark inaugural addresses.
There are always the human, personal touches, too -- like Washington's financial accounts -- that set every one of the affairs off from the others.
How the phrases leap out at you!
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" . . . "Ask not what your country can do for your; . . ." . . . "With malice toward none . . . ."
There have been pedestrian phrases, too, along with the passages of eloquence. McKinley told the crowd, March 4, 1897: "A deficiency is inevitable so long as the expenditures of the government exceed its receipts." There is Nixon's hardly felicitous mixed metaphor in his first inaugural: "The American dream does not come to those who fall asleep." (That was the inaugural, you remember, when he told an approving nation, "We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another . . . .")
The longest and dullest inaugural address came from the hero of Tippecanoe, Gen. William Henry Harrison (March 4, 1841), after the jolliest campaign. He took it upon himself to patronize the Founding Fathers, for example: "It was certainly a great error of the framers of the Constitution not to have made the officer at the head of the Treasury Department entirely independent of the executive . . . ."
His speech took two hours to deliver, as compared with Washington's second inaugural, the shortest of all at 135 words, including "fellow citizens" at the start.
What did Washington say in his first inaugural that started off one of the oldest and most hallowed ceremonies of the nation? Not much, really, in a political sense. (He saved his philosophy for his eloquent farewell address in 1796, decrying the "baneful effects of the spirit of party" and establishing the two-term tradition.)
It was not what Washington said in New York or Philadelphia, but what he was. He gave the office luster. That April day in New York he rejected all "personal emoluments" for the task and ended the tremendous oath of presidential office with the words "so help me God," and kissed the Bible.
Zachary Taylor was another simple, honest soldier like General Harrison, and his inaugural address (1849) also left something to be desired. His immediate predecessor, James K. Polk, wrote of the occasion in his intimate personal diary:
"He read it in a very low voice and very badly as to his pronunciation and manner." (The first use of amplifiers was in the Harding inaugural, which made it possible for the first time for the immense crowd on the Capitol Plaza to hear what was being said).
Polk anxiously notes that in the carriage on the way to the inaugural General Taylor expressed views "which greatly surprised me." The Mexican War had been won and gold discovered in California.The words of the new President were, so the shocked outgoing President reported, "to the effect that California and Oregon were too distant to become members of the union, and that it would be better for them to be an independent government. . . . These are alarming opinions. . . ."
How many times have the words of an incoming president shocked those of the outgoing president as they made the poignant ride together down America's most historic mile, from White House to Capitol? (What will Messrs. Reagan and Carter talk about?) It became so embarrassing for FDR to make conversation with gloomy Herbert Hoover, March 4, 1933, that he began brightly pointing out the new iron girders going into construction along the avenue.
What does the inaugural signify? The red-coated US Marine Corps band strikes up "Hail to the Chief" as the president and president-elect emerge from the Capitol (this year for the first time on the West Portico) and proceed to the front of the inaugural platform. A few minutes later (as Laurin Henry says in "Presidential Transitions"), after prayers and patriotic songs, the president-elect stands beside the chief justice of the United States and repeats a simple oath. "An instant ago he was a private citizen. Now, invested with the authority of the presidency, he turns and speaks to the nation and to the world. He finishes and withdraws; the marines hail the new chief while the old chief slips away as inconspicuously as he can. Symbolically and legally, there has been perfect continuity in the nation's highest office."
Every four years this reporter takes his paperbound book of "Inaugural Addresses," 1974 (which the Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., will send citizens for $3.50), and goes over the much-thumbed addresses, with their startling evocations of history. My copy is only down to Richard Milhous Nixon's second inaugural in 1973. Some are like nostalgic antiques evoking the mood of the time; others are like flashes of lightning that suddenly illuminate whole landscapes.
Here is Woodrow Wilson on March 5, 1917, passionately supporting "armed neutrality" against the war that will engulf him a month later (April 6).
Here is Lyndon Johnson in 1965, declaring as he uses the words "Great Society" for the first time, that "even now, a rocket moves toward Mars." Yes, while he talks, he says, the rocket changes man's perspective of his world: "It is like a child's globe, hanging in space, the continents stuck to its side like colored maps. We are all fellow passengers on a dot of earth.And each of us, in the span of time, has really only a moment among his companions."
Here is historic irony, too, in the inaugural game: The reader knows what will happen, while the presidential orators anxiously peer into the future. Herbert Hoover, for example, on March 4, 1929, only nine months away from the Wall Street crash (Oct. 29, 1929), extolling the boom: "In the large view, we have reached a higher degree of comfort and security than ever existed before in the history of the world . . . . We are steadily building a new race -- a new civilization great in its own attainments." Then the bottom dropped out.
Or here is President Nixon on Jan. 20, 1973; he complains of Vietnam war critics: "Our children have been taught to be ashamed of their country, ashamed of their parents, ashamed of America's record at home and of its role in the world." His alternative -- "Let us pledge together to make these next four years the best four years in America's history. . . ." This was the start of 1973. He would resign Aug. 7, 1974.
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.
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.
One of the major financial problems of the early days seems fantastic to us: What to do with a surplus. The problem was not how to raise more money to extinguish a deficit, but how to raise less money to prevent an overflowing Treasury. A federal surplus, you see, would produce extravagance. The least they could do, they argued, was to extinguish the national debt. The yound country had everything going for it: limitless resources, expanding population, no need to support a big army and navy when it was protected by two oceans, and leaders who, from George Washington down, had preached isolation from Europe's quarrels. The Treasury raised funds by indirect taxes; i.e., tariffs.
Jefferson makes the modern reader rub his eyes. In his 1805 inaugural address he boasts that by frugality the country has been able "to discontinue our internal taxes." With the ring of the man who drafted the Declaration of Independence he excoriates tax collectors: "These, covering our land with officers and opening our doors to their intrusions, had already begun their process of domiciliary vexation which, once entered, is scarcely to be restrained from reaching successively every article of property and produce. . . . What farmer, what mechanic, what laborer ever sees a taxgatherer of the United States?"
Andrew Jackson (1829) pledges "a strict and faithful economy," the target of which is "the extinguishment of the national debt, the unnecessary duration of which . . . [produces] public and private profligacy."
There are other recurrent themes. Some presidential victors, for example, complain of their treatment by the press. James Buchanan announced in his inaugural (1857) that he would not seek a second term, having passed through a contest "in which the passions of our fellow citizens were excited to the highest degree." (He announced in passing "the extinguishment of the national debt," and noted that "no nation before has ever been embarrassed from too large a surplus in its treasury."
President Grant's administration brought scandal and venom. He concludes his second inaugural (1873): "I have been the subject of abuse and slander scarcely ever equaled in political history. . . ." He thumbs his nose at detractors. However, he will ignore the attack: "I fell that I can disregard [it] in view of your verdict, which I gratefully accept as my vindication."
This particular reporter has watched many inaugurals; he finds them all different -- and all the same. The ceremony has become the occasion for giant parades, elaborate floats, marching bands, brilliant balls.Yet there is, of course, something deeper. The American president is not a pundit, patriarch, or potentate; and yet there is an echo of all three about the role. The inaugural ceremony reminds one of a coronation. It has grown from tradition and national need: There is the thought of Washington and Lincoln, of some favorite remembered phrase -- FDR's "There is nothing to fear but fear itself," perhaps, or Kennedy's apostrophe beginning, "Ask not . . . ."
The president-elect stands there in the open air under the dome of the Capitol, facing the black-robed chief justice and the awed crowd below. The Marine Corps band is silent, the nation listens. He places his hand on the Bible and repeats the pledge written into the Constitution by the fathers. In that two-minute interval there is a mystic communion with the nation, with the Past and with the Future. There are the quiet words and the symbols which speak so much louder than words. It is democracy made visible. Before he was an ordinary citizen; now he is suddenly the leader.