1/12/09 - inaugural addresses

In today's excerpt - presidents and the writing of their inaugural addresses:

"George Washington ... struggled ... to write the better part of a first draft, seventy-three pages of policy recommendations. Eager to assure Americans that he had not the least intention of founding a dynasty, he reminded Congress that he couldn't: 'the Divine providence hath not seen fit that my blood should be transmitted or my name perpetuated by the endearing though sometimes seducing, channel of personal offspring.' James Madison judiciously deleted that. Jackson made a stab at a draft, but his advisers, calling it 'disgraceful,' rewrote it entirely. After reading a draft of William Henry Harrison's inaugural, cluttered with references to ancient republics, Daniel Webster pared it down, and declared when he was done, 'I have killed seventeen Roman pro-consuls as dead as smelts.' Lincoln gave a draft of his first inaugural to his incoming Secretary of State, William Seward, who scribbled out a new ending, offering an olive branch to seceding Southern states:

" 'I close. We are not, we must not, be aliens or enemies, but fellow-countrymen and brethren. Although passion has strained our bonds of affection too hardly, they must not, I am sure they will not, be broken. The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battle-fields and so many patriot graves, pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours, will yet harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angels of the nation.'

"But it was Lincoln's revision that made this soar:

" 'I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearth-stone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.'

"Revision usually helps. Raymond Moley drafted Franklin Roosevelt's first inaugural, but Louis Howe added, 'The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.' Sorensen wrote much of Kennedy's, but it was Adlai Stevenson and John Kenneth Galbraith who proposed an early version of 'Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.' Carter, who had a vexed relationship with speechwriters wrote his own unmemorable inaugural, although James Fallows managed to persuade him to open by thanking Gerald Ford. ... Robert Schlesinger argues that Ronald Reagan gave, in the course of his career, iterations of what was essentially the same talk, known as the Speech. His inaugural, remarkable for its skilled delivery was no exception. Clinton solicited advice from dozens of people, including Sorensen, and then tinkered. About her husband, Hillary Clinton once said, 'He's never met a sentence he couldn't fool with.' "


Jill Lepore


'The Speech'


The New Yorker


January 12, 2009


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