Barack Obama took his second oath of office for the US Presidency today. As expected, the speech was not as inspirational as his initial inaugural address. There are good historical reasons—both specific to President Obama and applicable to all presidents—why this happens.
When the President was first inaugurated, his was a new, and inspiring, story. The Nation had, in the historically short span of 150 years, gone from a nation at war over slavery to one that could, and did, elect an African American president.
Given the historic consequences, and the fact that the President is at times a gifted orator, his first inaugural address was inspiring. His second today was good, but not as much so as the first. This is the norm. By the time a second inaugural address occurs, the public has become familiar, sometimes overly so, with the President being inaugurated.
There was, however, one second inaugural that broke this norm: Abraham Lincoln’s second address. President Lincoln is considered by many to have been the greatest writer ever to become president. He wrote his speeches himself—with input from staff—and was consequently invested in words he said.
On the occasion of Lincoln’s second inauguration the Civil War was in its last stages and the President was turning his attention away from the list of to-dos. He instead was grappling with the proper approach to take towards the conquered Southern States that would soon be forced back into the Union. The second inaugural address became the vehicle though which Lincoln articulated his philosophy towards what he would call reconstruction.
Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address was only six paragraphs long. Each paragraph had a distinct purpose.
Lincoln’s first paragraph tries to shift his listeners away from a report out on the Civil War. It begins the address by stating that he does not believe a long report is necessary, that much debate about the issues has already occurred and that all depends on continued military success anyway.
His second paragraph lays the blame for the war on the “insurgents.” Lincoln then utters these memorable words, “All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. … 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.
In the third paragraph, Lincoln turns his attention to the slaves. He notes that slavery was the root cause of the war and that the seceding “insurgents” would “rend” the Union to expand it.
The fourth paragraph suggests that neither side could get what it wanted from the war. He addresses the length of the war. He acknowledges that neither side anticipated the magnitude and duration of the war. Lincoln states that, although both sides read the same bible, neither’s prayers could be fully answered.
In the fifth paragraph Lincoln suggests that everyone in the country is reaping the punishment for allowing slavery to exist. In one extended passage he explains as follows.
Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman'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.
Having stated that (1) the moment was not a time for small matters, that (2) the Southerners were initially at fault, that (3) slavery was the root cause, that (4) the war was more difficult than anyone would have thought, that (5) God was taking his vengeance on both sides, Lincoln finally, in the sixth and last paragraph, boldly proclaims that the Nation should look charitably upon those who suffered, both insurgent and Union supporter, regardless of their geographic location. Lincoln concludes with words that have, justly, become famous.
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.
It was a thrilling address, pithy in length, logically constructed, and persuasive in its arguments. It is also unlike the modern bloviation that marks modern politicians.