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Presidential speechwriters are a competitive bunch. I don’t know how many of us there have been since Warring Harding hired Judson Welliver as a “literary clerk” in the early ’20s, but I do know that the majority of those who’ve labored over a draft in the EEOB — or, if they were truly lucky, the West Wing — have a little bit of an inferiority complex.
Why? Because the first question you get when your vocation is mentioned to a stranger is “Did you write anything I know?” Put aside the banality of the question for a minute — how the hell am I supposed to have a vise-like grip on what you know? — and think about how this actually plays out. For the vast majority of us, the answer is ‘no.’ Most presidential speeches — especially in an age when they’ve become ubiquitous — are unremarkable affairs. No one reads your Rose Garden remarks congratulating science fair winners from around the country (yes, I actually got that assignment once. John Negroponte said he loved the speech. I’m still convinced he was mocking me). As a result, your average White House scribe lives in perpetual envy of Raymond Moley, who penned the 1933 FDR inaugural address that included “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” (though Moley doesn’t seem to have been responsible for that line); of Ted Sorensen for working on JFK’s 1961 inaugural; and, yes, of Peter Robinson for writing Ronald Reagan’s Brandenburg Gate speech and etching the phrase “tear down this wall” into history. Only the lucky few get a signature song.
What’s sort of remarkable — beautiful, in a way — is that none of the members of this small fraternity, no matter how great their achievements, will ever plausibly be able to claim pride of place…because the greatest presidential speech ever delivered was written by the chief executive himself. And it was delivered 150 years ago today.
Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, delivered in the dying days of the Civil War, is probably the greatest rhetorical exercise ever conducted on American soil. It is at once stoic and hopeful, chastened and generous of spirit. I’d say more, but there’s no sense in extensively prefacing eloquence so much greater than your own. Here’s the text:
At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.
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.
One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.
The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
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.
A reproduction of the handwritten version of that speech hangs over the desk in my office. Unlike some other great presidential orations, I don’t read it with envy that I couldn’t be that good. I read it with admiration for the fact that anyone could be.
One footnote: knowing, as we do today, that Lincoln would be dead within six weeks after these remarks, it’s tempting to read it backwards as a sort of closing statement to the country. The mystical interpretation of Lincoln has always been somewhat seductive, probably in part because of the (likely apocryphal) notion that he had premonitions of his own death. Still, this image (there’s some contention as to whether this is actually Booth, but none about the fact that he was there) makes it all the more chilling: