THE INAUGURAL . . . from Virginia's George Washington to California's Ronald Reagan
(Page 4 of 4)
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.