The Greatest Presidential Speech Ever Delivered

 

abraham-lincoln-secondinauguration3Presidential 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:

Fellow countrymen:

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:

640px-LincolnJohn

 

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  1. captainpower Member
    captainpower
    @captainpower

    Troy Senik, Ed.: the first question you get when your vocation is mentioned to a stranger is “Did you write anything I know?” … 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” …; 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.

    And of those that leave their mark upon history, how long are they remembered? How long are their words and ideas remembered?

    There are so many kinds of celebrity and professional athlete nowadays that it’s easy to lose track of them all. Likewise with such important speeches and figures from history.

    ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

    • #1
  2. Troy Senik, Ed. Contributor
    Troy Senik, Ed.
    @TroySenik

    captainpower:

    Troy Senik, Ed.: the first question you get when your vocation is mentioned to a stranger is “Did you write anything I know?” … 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” …; 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.

    And of those that leave their mark upon history, how long are they remembered? How long are their words and ideas remembered?

    There are so many kinds of celebrity and professional athlete nowadays that it’s easy to lose track of them all. Likewise with such important speeches and figures from history.

    ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

    You know, you could’ve just posted a YouTube embed of “Dust in the Wind” ;)

    Also, to be fair, you’re quoting a nearly 200-year-old poem. Some things endure.

    • #2
  3. user_129539 Member
    user_129539
    @BrianClendinen

    What if a modern president tried to give a similar speech evoking Gods judgment and righteousness and the moral righteous of their cause but still being gracious in many ways when they describe there enemies.

    What if he explained how their enemies who were also Americans but were morally wrong with a great evil;  If he also ascribing blood, destruction and suffer was because of a nations sin in regards to this grave moral falling.; A grave ethical evil of which both sides used religious rhetoric to justify their position. All this on an issue he had fought for years to stop, and the great evil  was abortion.

    How would American progressive respond, with criticism and attempts to assassinate the presidents moral character. Or would the hatred come to the point of wishing and actively seeking the president life and that of his family and allies. Would they even go as far as to start a war no one wanted all for the right to silence their own offspring? What would the speech sound like before the worse of it and after it looked like there was light at the end of tunnel for victory?  

    I pray we actual see a president who has the moral courage to give a speech like that again and the tenacity to give actions to his words as Lincoln did.  Because I am afraid if we don’t,  America as we know and love will cease to exist this century as it would have if Lincoln and his Allies had not stood up and fought. I grieve at the thought of America being replaced by a debased version that will due evil not good in the world. What good is a nation in which we can no longer say with convection and without hypocrisy  “God bless America”.

    • #3
  4. DocJay Inactive
    DocJay
    @DocJay

    We shall all fade to ashes and obscurity, some at the moment of their deaths, most others within a couple generations.

    I suppose Lincoln’s words may last thousands of years though.   Obama’s will fade much quicker, for like all despots the talk never means much.

    • #4
  5. DocJay Inactive
    DocJay
    @DocJay

    lincoln

    • #5
  6. Nick Stuart Inactive
    Nick Stuart
    @NickStuart

    DocJay:We shall all fade to ashes and obscurity, some at the moment of their deaths, most others within a couple generations.

    I suppose Lincoln’s words may last thousands of years though. Obama’s will fade much quicker, for like all despots the talk never means much.

    Lincoln’s words will last at least as long as the Lincoln Memorial, upon whose walls they are carved in stone (along with the Gettysburg Address).

    • #6
  7. Nick Stuart Inactive
    Nick Stuart
    @NickStuart

    Brian Clendinen:What if a modern president tried to give a similar speech evoking Gods judgment and righteousness and the moral righteous of their cause but still being gracious in many ways when they describe there enemies.

    Forget about the moral clarity with which Lincoln spoke.

    What if any candidate for president spoke in the same voice as Lincoln (whose speaking voice has been described as “high and reedy”). Would any candidate with that speaking voice (to say nothing of Lincoln’s physical appearance) be electable nowadays?

    • #7
  8. George Savage Contributor
    George Savage
    @GeorgeSavage

    Whenever I am in DC and can manage it–a dozen or more times now–I stop by the Lincoln Memorial to read the second inaugural address. Seeing those words in that place brings tears to my eyes every single time.

    • #8
  9. captainpower Member
    captainpower
    @captainpower

    Troy Senik, Ed.:You know, you could’ve just posted a YouTube embed of “Dust in the Wind” ;)

    Troy Senik, Ed.:

    Also, to be fair, you’re quoting a nearly 200-year-old poem. Some things endure.

    Fair enough. I wonder how many people know these quotes, who said them, or their context. The venn diagram of things known by all has gotta be pretty small, especially as time passes and education fails.

    All that was supposed to be a comforting response that no one remembers the Rose Garden remarks congratulating science fair winners. I hope it keeps you warm at night.

    • #9
  10. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @NedVaughn

    It’s been too long since I’ve read these marvelous words. Thank you for this post, Troy.

    • #10
  11. Charlotte Member
    Charlotte
    @Charlotte

    Goosebumps. And tears.

    The National Park Service is hosting a major program on Saturday at the Lincoln Memorial in honor of the 150th anniversary.

    [Shameless plug] There will also be lots of things happening at Ford’s Theatre this month and next to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the assassination. (Feel free to PM me for further details! :-)

    Thanks for the post, Troy. One can never have enough Abraham Lincoln.

    • #11
  12. Mark Thatcher
    Mark
    @GumbyMark

    It’s also the most unusual speech in Presidential history; more of a sermon than a speech.  Any President giving this speech today would be condemned for the invoking of God’s will and for their lack of “inclusiveness”.

    Lincoln’s audience expected to hear his thoughts about the progress of the war and his planned approach to Reconstruction.  He spoke of neither, instead delivering this masterpiece.

    I wrote some additional thoughts about it today here.

    • #12
  13. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    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.”

    I can’t imagine any politician today saying something like that.  In a way, it seems like the polar opposite of FDR’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

    • #13
  14. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    What I have always found interesting about Lincoln’s Second Inaugural was that it is so short. His first is quite long. By the time the second was written, he and the country were utterly exhausted.

    It is the most important speech ever written, I think.

    • #14
  15. Devereaux Inactive
    Devereaux
    @Devereaux

    MarciN:What I have always found interesting about Lincoln’s Second Inaugural was that it is so short. His first is quite long. By the time the second was written, he and the country were utterly exhausted.

    It is the most important speech ever written, I think.

    Gettysburg, too. Lincoln appears to have developed the art of speaking huge volumes in brief passages. Very few, especially “speachifiers”, have that skill.

    • #15
  16. Fredösphere Member
    Fredösphere
    @Fredosphere

    Quinn the Eskimo:

    I can’t imagine any politician today saying something like that. In a way, it seems like the polar opposite of FDR’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

    Really. The religiosity and especially that hint of “we had it coming” is unthinkable in today’s political environment. Not to mention the complexity and subtlety of the argument. Kind of depressing.

    • #16
  17. MSJL Thatcher
    MSJL
    @MSJL

    It must also have been a pleasant surprise, as inaugural speeches do tend to unfortunately drone on.  I think this speech requires less than 15 minutes to deliver.  Lincoln’s first was basically a legal brief on why the southern states had no legal authority to secede.

    I have often thought of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural as a step in a parallel arc through US history that defines America’s social culture in the way that the Constitution is the starting point in the arc that defines our political culture.  Starting with Washington’s letter to the Newport Congregation to the Second Inaugural and through FDR’s Four Freedoms and Martin Luther King’s address at the Lincoln Monument, these (and others) define key attributes of an idealized character:  respectful of our neighbors, magnanimous and forgiving to our former enemies, responsible to our civic order, and confident in aspiring to a noble cause.

    I have seen the Second Inaugural referred to not only as the greatest inaugural speech, but also the greatest American political speech and even the greatest political speech in the English language.  What would we consider its rivals?

    • #17
  18. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    Fredösphere:

    Quinn the Eskimo:

    I can’t imagine any politician today saying something like that. In a way, it seems like the polar opposite of FDR’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

    Really. The religiosity and especially that hint of “we had it coming” is unthinkable in today’s political environment. Not to mention the complexity and subtlety of the argument. Kind of depressing.

    Is there any occasion in recent history (or other than slavery) in which that would be appropriate?

    • #18
  19. Mark Thatcher
    Mark
    @GumbyMark

    Quinn the Eskimo:

    Fredösphere:

    Quinn the Eskimo:

    I can’t imagine any politician today saying something like that. In a way, it seems like the polar opposite of FDR’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

    Really. The religiosity and especially that hint of “we had it coming” is unthinkable in today’s political environment. Not to mention the complexity and subtlety of the argument. Kind of depressing.

    Is there any occasion in recent history (or other than slavery) in which that would be appropriate?

    Even at the time it was unusual for Lincoln.  In his public speeches after becoming President he stressed that the purpose of the war was restoring the Union, not destroying slavery.  Even the Emancipation Proclamation was justified as a wartime measure and only applied to certain portions of the seceding states.  Slavery is not directly referenced in the Gettysburg Address.

    • #19
  20. Mark Thatcher
    Mark
    @GumbyMark

    Troy – I thought George W Bush gave a wonderful speech (though certainly much longer than Lincoln’s) on the legacy of slavery in America at Goree Island in Senegal in 2003.  What’s your assessment of that speech?

    • #20
  21. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Fredösphere:

    Quinn the Eskimo:

    I can’t imagine any politician today saying something like that. In a way, it seems like the polar opposite of FDR’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

    Really. The religiosity and especially that hint of “we had it coming” is unthinkable in today’s political environment. Not to mention the complexity and subtlety of the argument. Kind of depressing.

    It is a different world now. Years ago I stumbled upon an old local newspaper published at the end of World War II. The editorial began, “We pray, God, make us worthy of this peace.”

    That would never be published today.

    Boxing up God in our churches has changed us more than I would have ever imagined.

    • #21
  22. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Ten years ago for a short period of time I spent most of my waking hours reading everything I could get my hands on about the politics of the Civil War. I read somewhere in that time that original copies of the Second Inaugural and the Gettysburg Address were displayed at Westminster Abbey as examples of the finest English prose ever composed. Astounding to read that.

    I cannot find anything on the Internet to back up that memory I have of reading that fact. I think I read it in one of James McPherson’s many books.

    Very frustrating.

    Also, I’m sure everyone who reads Ricochet has already seen it, but on the off chance that someone here may have missed it, Spielberg’s Lincoln is amazing, even though James McPherson, one of Spielberg’s original advisers, walked off the set. :)

    Now if I could get Spielberg to make the movie about the 2,000 teachers from New England who, as soon as the peace treaty was signed, went down to the South to teach blacks how to read. That was a brief story in the McPherson books that has captivated my imagination for years. It would make a great movie.

    • #22
  23. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Mark:Troy – I thought George W Bush gave a wonderful speech (though certainly much longer than Lincoln’s) on the legacy of slavery in America at Goree Island in Senegal in 2003. What’s your assessment of that speech?

    I would really like to read that. I have a small collection of his many speeches. I have missed that one. I’ve never heard it.

    • #23
  24. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    And where else but Ricochet would I find a discussion of the Second Inaugural on a snowy day in March.

    What an amazing achievement Ricochet is.  Truly.

    • #24
  25. Charlotte Member
    Charlotte
    @Charlotte

    Mark:Troy – I thought George W Bush gave a wonderful speech (though certainly much longer than Lincoln’s) on the legacy of slavery in America at Goree Island in Senegal in 2003. What’s your assessment of that speech?

    Maybe Troy wrote that speech!

    • #25
  26. Mark Thatcher
    Mark
    @GumbyMark

    MarciN:

    Mark:Troy – I thought George W Bush gave a wonderful speech (though certainly much longer than Lincoln’s) on the legacy of slavery in America at Goree Island in Senegal in 2003. What’s your assessment of that speech?

    I would really like to read that. I have a small collection of his many speeches. I have missed that one. I’ve never heard it.

    Here ya go!  http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2003/07/20030708-1.html

    • #26
  27. Mark Thatcher
    Mark
    @GumbyMark

    MarciN:

    Fredösphere:

    Quinn the Eskimo:

    I can’t imagine any politician today saying something like that. In a way, it seems like the polar opposite of FDR’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

    Really. The religiosity and especially that hint of “we had it coming” is unthinkable in today’s political environment. Not to mention the complexity and subtlety of the argument. Kind of depressing.

    It is a different world now. Years ago I stumbled upon an old local newspaper published at the end of World War II. The editorial began, “We pray, God, make us worthy of this peace.”

    That would never be published today.

    Boxing up God in our churches has changed us more than I would have ever imagined.

    Yes, and if you read FDR’s wartime speeches you will find him invoking God.  And though he was a progressive he was also an American exceptionalist as many of the pre-60s progressives were.

    • #27
  28. Troy Senik, Ed. Contributor
    Troy Senik, Ed.
    @TroySenik

    Charlotte:

    Mark:Troy – I thought George W Bush gave a wonderful speech (though certainly much longer than Lincoln’s) on the legacy of slavery in America at Goree Island in Senegal in 2003. What’s your assessment of that speech?

    Maybe Troy wrote that speech!

    It was before my time. And Mark is right — it’s criminally overlooked. For my money, it’s among the best speeches to come out of the Administration (the speech at National Cathedral shortly after 9/11 is up there too). I don’t know the author of Goree Island, but my strong suspicion — given the tone and the topic — is that it was penned by Mike Gerson, who’s extremely eloquent when it comes to topics of such moral gravity. (And super-dodgy on policy, but that’s another story…)

    • #28
  29. Mark Thatcher
    Mark
    @GumbyMark

    Troy Senik, Ed.:

    Charlotte:

    Mark:Troy – I thought George W Bush gave a wonderful speech (though certainly much longer than Lincoln’s) on the legacy of slavery in America at Goree Island in Senegal in 2003. What’s your assessment of that speech?

    Maybe Troy wrote that speech!

    It was before my time. And Mark is right — it’s criminally overlooked. For my money, it’s among the best speeches to come out of the Administration (the speech at National Cathedral shortly after 9/11 is up there too). I don’t know the author of Goree Island, but my strong suspicion — given the tone and the topic — is that it was penned by Mike Gerson, who’s extremely eloquent when it comes to topics of such moral gravity. (And super-dodgy on policy, but that’s another story…)

    Part of the reason it was overlooked was that it clashed with the media narrative of Bush as a racist so the MSM payed little attention to it.  If Barack Obama delivered the same speech we would still be hearing how awesome it was.

    The other reason it was overlooked is that Bush’s Africa trip was overshadowed by the NY Times decision to run the Joe Wilson op-ed on the supposedly misleading justification for the Iraq War and Saddam’s nuke program, an article which created a media firestorm.  I don’t think the timing of the op-ed was an accident.  It was meant to blot out a Republican President’s trip to sub-Saharan Africa.

    • #29
  30. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Mark:

    MarciN:

    Mark:Troy – I thought George W Bush gave a wonderful speech (though certainly much longer than Lincoln’s) on the legacy of slavery in America at Goree Island in Senegal in 2003. What’s your assessment of that speech?

    I would really like to read that. I have a small collection of his many speeches. I have missed that one. I’ve never heard it.

    Here ya go! http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2003/07/20030708-1.html

    Thank you so much.

    Wow.

    • #30

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